RIGHT & JUST
Rabbi David Walk
In various levels of exasperation we Jews often ask, "What does God want from me?' Over the years many answers have been offered to this query. Some responses are biting with sarcasm ('blood'), others dripping with saccharin affection ('love' and 'adoration'). But the most famous answer of all was given by the prophet Micah, and is in my bar mitzvah Haftorah (parshat Balak): God has told you, O human, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). Sadly, I don't remember that line from my thirteenth birthday, and that's not only because it was so long ago. In those carefree days I never dreamed I'd someday be writing these essays, and therefore didn't pay much attention to things Jewish. However, I knew that I'd always be ready with a Red Sox stat or a Boston (yes, they played in Boston in those bygone days) Patriots anecdote. Anyway, as luck would have it, there is another slightly different answer to my question in this week's Torah reading, and there are two parts to the answer.
I believe that we can find our answer in God's musings before informing Avraham of the impending doom of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here are the pertinent verses: Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am doing? And Avraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed in him. For I have known him because he commands his children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice, in order that the Lord bring upon Avraham that which He spoke concerning him (Genesis 18:17-19)." Of course this is the introduction to the negotiations between God and Avraham over the fate of these wayward cities. God announces to us, the readers, that Avraham must be informed of the plan, because he keeps righteousness and justice. But what do these two terms imply?
The two expressions in Hebrew are tzedaka and mishpat. We usually use the word tzedaka to mean charity, but it really means to do the right thing. In Modern Hebrew we say ata tzodek when we mean that you are correct. Mishpat on the other hand means according to the law. One could therefore make the mistake of thinking that mishpat means following the letter of the law and tzedaka means going beyond the legal requirements. However, you wouldn't be tzodek, right. The term in Hebrew for going beyond the expectations of the law ischesed. So, what is the implication of tzedaka? I think that it means doing the action which the circumstances demand. I believe that mishpat is the written rules, and tzedaka implies using those rules appropriately to the occasion. It's not so much bending the rules as applying them according to the dictates of the situation. Even laws must be applied judiciously.
At this point one could say that God feels the need to inform Avraham because he maintains tzedaka and mishpat. But what is that business at the end of the quote about bringing to Avraham.' that which He spoke concerning him'? I think that this refers to the Brit Bein Ha'Bitarim, the covenant between the parts (15:13-16) from last week's parsha. In that covenant God says that all the promises being made to Avraham will be fulfilled in the future to Avraham's offspring. What kind of deal is that? I know that people make deals for their heirs to receive cash after their demise. We call that life insurance. But making a deal which won't be paid out for four generations. That's unheard of. Avraham views his commitment to God in an historical light. He sees the relationship with God as spanning the ages. It doesn't bother him that he will never see the fruits of his labors. Once we accept an eternal God, we see no problem with making arrangements for outcomes we will never experience. Because our children are us. We view our transaction with God as an ongoing historical movement stretching into an unseen and unimagined future. We act now for results many years or generations down the line.
Now we can begin to understand another phrase in God's announcement that Avraham must be informed of the fate of Sodom et al. God says that Avraham 'commands his children and his household after him.' The promises about future greatness in the land of Israel only make sense because Avraham doesn't only behave morally and ethically, but he demands no less from all of those around him. Avraham had no problem banishing Lot from his entourage because he saw that certain parts of the Lot household weren't living up to the standards demanded of the Avraham household. Avraham suffers when Sarah tells him to send Yishmael away, but he heeds God's instruction to follow Sarah's plan. This is simply because he knows that the Avraham legacy must always be seen in the light of tzedaka and mishpat. Yishmael doesn't make the cut, and Avraham grudgingly accepts that determination.
God states that Avraham must be informed of the judgment at Sodom-berg, because Avraham will carry the responsibility of moral behavior for all mankind into the infinite future. Avraham, perhaps alone in his time, must understand how this moral system works because he is the great hope for generating ethics throughout history. The punishment for these communities isn't executed in a vacuum, but in a context of humanity learning proper communal development. It's a teaching opportunity.
Finally we can answer my original question. What does God want from me? God wants me to live a life of tzedaka and mishpat and to pass that lifestyle on to everyone around me. It's an easy answer; a tough assignment.