6.1 The Correlation between the Lekh Lekha and Vayera Portions
As noted above, the weekly sections in the Book of Genesis come in pairs; just as the first story of humanity is described in the Torah in two weekly sections, Bereshit and Noah, so too the story of Abraham is told to us in two weekly sections, Lekh Lekha and Vayera.
The Lekh Lekha portion, literally translated as Go for Yourself, describes Abraham’s departure as a parting not only from his father’s house and previous life, but also as a gradual divergence from his original plan: he gradually shifted from the idea of creating a universal religion to the acceptance of God’s plan of creating a unique monotheistic nation, after which this universal idea would be transmitted to all of humanity.
In the course of his journey across the Land of Israel, Abraham gradually recognizes that the continuation of his teaching cannot be implemented, neither through Eliezer nor Lot, nor Ishmael, but only through Abraham’s son born to Sarah. Eliezer, Lot, and Ishmael were close to Abraham and followed his teachings, but this was not enough for them be his successors. To bear Abraham’s teachings, it was necessary not only to know and understand his philosophy, but also possess an immense creative potential. After all, the creation of the chosen nation and Judaism does not end with Abraham, and the successor to this mission must not just follow in Abraham’s footsteps, but forge his own path. Only his son born to Sarah could be strong and clever enough to become his true successor.
Lekh Lekha was Abraham’s transition from an individual level of understanding to a national level, a shift from Abram to Abraham.
This pivotal point begins the new portion of Vayera, literally “And HaShem appeared unto him.” In this section, HaShem reveals himself to Abraham specifically as the founder of a nation. The key moment in this turning point is the birth of Isaac. Abraham, the righteous man of the category of hesed, begins to recognize (and this is very difficult for him) that his successor would be a person of an entirely different mindset, a pious man of a different nature: he will be tzaddik of the category gevura. Abraham had to learn and accept that hesed must not be manifested on its own, but requires integration with other categories, primarily with gevura.
The Lekh Lekha portion describes the emergence of Abraham, while the Vayera section discusses Abraham’s relationship with Isaac, because it is vital not only to attain something that already exists but to go beyond it. This story begins with the prophecy of Isaac’s birth and ends with the story of Akeydat Yitzhak (the Binding of Isaac) which signifies the climax of establishing mutual understanding between Abraham and Isaac.
Isaac could have been born only after Ishmael’s maturation, because in the process of Ishmael’s birth and rearing, a certain “shell” (klipa) was removed from Abraham, which interfered with his advancement (this is the “impure hesed” of Ishmael; we will discuss this theme below), and so begins his formation as the forefather of the Jewish nation. Only after his circumcision and change of his name can Abraham become the progenitor of a nation.
6.2 The Afternoon Revelation—Beginning of the Journey towards the Category of Gevura
(1) And HaShem appeared unto him in the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.
The previous appearance of HaShem to Abraham happened very recently (Genesis 17:1), but since then Abraham has changed, having circumcised himself and his household. Consequently, this time he does not “bow himself toward the ground” upon meeting HaShem, but can rather continue the dialogue with Him.
The Terebinths of Mamre is the city of Hebron (13:18) where Abraham lived during and after the war with the kings (14:13). The Kabalistic category (sefira) of Hebron in the context of the Land of Israel is malkhut, (kingdom), the category of implementation. And this is the category of David, who began ruling specifically in Chevron. On the other hand, Abraham’s category of hesed, and the quality of malkhut is foreign to him. Abraham has not yet created a nation; he has only begun the colossal task of creating it. The structure of the sefirot tree builds up towards malkhut, David and the Messiah the son of David—Abraham is but the commencement point of its growth. Abraham settles in Chevron, the city of kingship, because deep down he wants to progress in the direction of malkhut, wants to begin to learn this category. (However, it is later shown that Abraham cannot yet stay in Chevron, and therefore leaves for Grar and then Beer Sheba).
Abraham sits at the entrance of his tent “in the heat of the day.” “Of the day” is interpreted to mean “in the afternoon”—this is the time of the gevura category. Dawn and early morning are hesed, the time of mercy, the time of Abraham; the afternoon, however, is the time of gevura, of giving an account and judgment, the time of Isaac (and night, as we will see below, is the time of tiferet, the time of Jacob).
In the morning, light appears, and we feel it to be HaShem’s gift to the world after the darkness of night. God returns each person’s soul after sleep, after which the person resumes his life. In the morning prayer, shaharit, a person celebrates that he has woken up and received the gift of life. During the day the sun beats down fiercely and it is difficult to be beneath it; this is the time of law and judgment. Accordingly, in the afternoon prayer, minha, a person makes himself accountable before God for work he has accomplished during the day—this is the deeper essence of this prayer. The purpose of the category of judgment is to justify one’s existence, the reciprocal output for the given opportunities. And this is the personality of Isaac.
For this reason it is important that in this account, Abraham’s vision begins after noon, during “the heat of the day,” rather than in the early morning; this is a sign that the time is approaching for the birth of Isaac, the righteous of the category of judgment.
“In the tent door”: the Midrash states that by sitting in the doorway, Abraham displayed a readiness to invite travelers into his home.
6.3 “Three Men” as the Union of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
(2) and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, (3) And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: (4) Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. (5) And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on; forasmuch as ye are come to your servant.’ And they said: ‘So do, as thou hast said.’
Who were these “three men” whom Abraham meets here? The story about them begins with “And HaShem appeared unto him” (18:1), but we do not find here an address from God to Abraham; rather, the text immediately transitions to “and, lo, three men stood over him” (18:2). Further, it is said the people with whom Abraham spoke “looked out toward Sodom…and the two angels came to Sodom” (18:16, 19:1). So, with whom was Abraham conversing?
Tradition offers several interpretations of this passage: either these were three ordinary travelers, sent to Abraham by God with a mission, or they were angels, or, finally, this was the Almighty himself, revealing himself to Abraham in a vision. In different eras, Jewish commentators emphasized those aspects of understanding this story which were important specifically to the people of their generation.
For us today, the commentaries of the Book of Zohar would probably be the most interesting. This commentary states that the three figures, the three people Abraham saw, are the three forefathers; that is, Abraham himself in the company of Isaac and Jacob. This means Abraham saw and recognized himself not only as an individual and an independent sefira of hesed, separated from other sefirot, but also as a link in the chain of generations, in both the spiritual and physical sense, as part of the bigger picture of the nation’s development. Abraham saw and began to understand that the category of hesed cannot successfully operate autonomously (or, in other words, it is impossible to improve mankind and the universe with only love, kindness and generosity), and he was only the first link in the chain of prophets who would continue what he began. The category of Abraham must be completed by the categories of Isaac and Jacob, and understanding this is a huge step for Abraham.
Abraham not only sees his connection with the categories of Isaac and Jacob, but also accepts them. We see this by “he ran to meet them.” The word ran (ratz) is connected in Hebrew to the word ratzon (a desire which forces one to chase after the desired); thus, Abraham is open to unification. Abraham recognizes that all three forefathers constitute a unified whole, and that he is not the sole founder of the people, but of all of them together, i.e. the founding of the Jewish nation must consist of not only hesed, but of other categories as well. This understanding is his enormous spiritual advancement.
Having reached such an understanding, Abraham is ready for Isaac’s birth. With circumcision, Abraham recognized his “uniqueness,” but he has now moved farther and recognized himself to be only the beginning of an expansion. As a result of this acknowledgment he can bear Isaac, a righteous man of a direction different from his own. Without having passed this stage, Abraham would not have been able to bear Isaac, but would only be the father of Ishmael, who is a kind of “weak copy of an earlier Abraham.”
6.4 Overcoming Fanaticism
There is a tendency in each person’s nature to see one’s own opinions and views as the most correct and important. This part of our personality is obviously necessary; otherwise, one would not be able to defend his opinions, nor be able to realize his own mission in the world. However, it is bad if a person becomes such a fanatical supporter of a certain belief (that is in and of itself wonderful!) that he considers its realization to be the sole panacea for all problems. For example, love, beauty, and social justice are all important values. But absolutizing them and declaring that “only love will save the world” or “only beauty will save the world” or “only social justice will save the world,” would be destructive fanaticism and evil.
A person stands on an incomparably higher level when he actively defends one’s thoughts and ideas, but also sees them as part of the larger picture, i.e. admits that his favorite idea must also have spiritual opposition, and that this opposition will only benefit his idea.
Naturally, it is very important not to discard one’s own views, but to assert and defend them. If I will not support my own beliefs, then who will support them? (As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”) Yet, it is vital not to consider one’s own way to be the only possible approach.
For this reason, fanaticism is not a person’s views, if he’s left or right-wing, an extremist or “moderate.” Fanaticism is when a person does not see and does not want to see anything except his own opinions. He does not understand the importance of opposition, counterbalance, and other points of view, and so cannot advance correctly.
Any positive thing or idea can be right, if set in its proper place. But if it tries to spread over everything, then it is no longer in its own place, and cannot function properly. In Kabbala, such a “blind to others” approach is called olam nekudim (a World of Spots), in which every sefira, that is, an idea that is good and right in and of itself, tries to incorporate into itself all the surrounding Divine light, and, as a result, bursts from excess internal pressure, breaks and shatters (a process known as shvirat kelim—(the breakdown of vessels). Thus any system which tries to suppress an opposing view loses its counterbalance and inevitably collapses. Tikkun (correction) is, on the contrary, the acquisition of this balance. Abraham’s transition from a “total reliance on hesed” to an understanding of the importance of the equilibrium of the “three men” who appeared to him is the overcoming of potential fanaticism, a very important step towards repairing the world.
6.5 Ishmael’s Impure Hesed
When we say that Ishamel is a “weak copy of an earlier Abraham,” we mean that Ishamel is also a person of hesed, like Abraham, but he incorrectly directs this hesed (in the terminology of the Kabbala, he is hesed detuma, impure hesed). However, since Ishamel also expresses his hesed, he is similar to Abraham and, despite all of his mistakes, Abraham understands him. But Isaac, who symbolizes gevura, is different from Abraham and so is incomprehensible to him. This is the reason why Abraham loves Ishmael more than Isaac. Establishing a connection with Isaac is difficult internal work for Abraham, which is nonetheless necessary for his development.
Tradition sees a demonstration of Ishamel’s impure hesed in the words “his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (16:12), which indicates a lack of a sense of boundaries, and this is precisely what makes hesed impure. Similarly, the words describing how Ishamel was “mocking” (metzahek) Isaac (21:9) are understood by the Midrash as a “sexual drive without a sense of boundary” (the word metzahek, to mock or flirt, has a sexual subtext in the Torah: refer to 26:9).
This “impure hesed” induces Ishmael to turn his hesed towards himself; he has a tendency to permissiveness, as a result of which the dark side of Western hospitality turns into mass murder of infidels. It is due to this permissiveness that Ishmael’s descendants “find a balance” by choosing Islam, a religion of the opposite category, i.e gevura, with its minimalistic monotheism and exceedingly harsh system of restrictions. (In contrast, Esau’s descendants whose essence is gevura, take upon themselves the religion of hesed and love, that is, Christianity, because they feel the necessity to balance out their natural tendencies, for otherwise life would go entirely to pieces…)
One can learn much about any civilization by understanding its conception of heaven, as this reflects the deepest aspirations of its “collective soul.” In some sense, “Tell me what your heaven is, and I will tell you who you are.”
It is not by accident that in the consciousness of Ishmael’s descendants, “Heaven is a place where men are awaited by 72 virgins.” This vision demonstrates the deepest inclinations of the Arab soul, its innermost yearning for debauchery. (They understand that this is their inclination and so they try—for their own self-preservation!—to severely limit themselves and introduce exceedingly harsh “anti-lewdness” measures: let the women walk covered from head to toe so that they do not seduce the men).
All of this “impure hesed” had to be separated from Abraham (and this occurred when Ishmael was born) so that purified hesed could be inherited by the Jewish nation.
6.6 The Character and Role of the Angel
If we interpret Abraham’s guests as angels (especially in light of what is said later, “And there came two angels at Sodom”), we must ask why there were either two or three angels, rather than one? The Midrash explains that each angel can perform only his own assigned role, but can never carry out two tasks. One angel was the “angel of good news” (Michael), who came to inform Sarah about the birth of Isaac; the second was the angel of healing (Rafael) who cured Abraham of his pain after the circumcision (later he was the one who led Lot out of Sodom, as healing and saving is counted as one task here); the third angel was the angel of judgment (Gabriel) and his mission was to destroy Sodom.
This interpretation portrays the Jewish understanding of an angel as a somewhat limited aspect of Divine Will, descended into the lower world, and in a sense, separated from Him. The angel is a type of materialized or sort of “concentrated” Divine Will sent to the lower world for the completion of a particular assignment.
Such a manifestation of Divine Will can be a one-time occurrence (that is, used only for a particular occasion), or it can be constant (in the form of a certain natural law or some recurring event).
Incidentally, from this perspective all forces of evil are also angels. For example, in Jewish philosophy, the Satan (“Satana”), is one of the angels and, like all others, he unconditionally carries out the tasks assigned to him, but in no way is he a “power that opposes the Almighty.” The work of Satan is to be the prosecutor, to blame, to send people various kinds of problems, but this task is entrusted to him by God. This approach differs significantly from the Christian perspective, in which Satan is God’s adversary.
6.7 Hospitality as Abraham’s Religious Value
(6) And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said: ‘Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.’ (7) And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hastened to dress it. (8) And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.
Hospitality is not something unusual in our times, but in the ancient world the situation was different and kindness to strangers was not commonplace. However, for Abraham, hospitality was one of, if not the most, characteristic feature of the everyday manifestation of his religiosity, which he sought to realize to the highest possible degree. (The Talmud in Bava Metzia 87a emphasizes that the righteous man says little, promises only water and a slice of bread, but does much, giving also meat and milk).
The essence of monotheism that Abraham preached consists of love for God, expressed through love for others who are representatives of God on earth. After all, the essence of monotheism is not that there is only one God, but that man is created in God’s image and likeness. And so, by taking in the travelers and expressing his love for them, Abraham, realizes his religious values.
Likewise Lot, Abraham’s relative and pupil, is hospitable, but Sodom, Abraham’s antipode, is “anti-hospitable,” and so does not earn the right to exist. Sodom’s inhospitality towards induces God’s “inhospitality” towards Sodom.
6.8 Mahpela: The Link of Jewish Tradition with Adam
The Midrash connects the story of the angels’ appearance to Abraham with the discovery of the Cave of Mahpela. In the verse “And Abraham ran unto the herd…” (18:7) the pronoun el (towards) is fairly uncommon and usually means “run after” rather than “run towards” so that the verse means, “And Abraham ran after the herd.” The rare use of this pronoun prompts the Midrash to explain that a calf ran away from Abraham into the cave of Mahpela; Abraham ran after him and saw this was the grave of Adam and Eve. Abraham saw the light of the Garden of Eden leading out of the cave and decided to make this cave his family tomb.
The idea of this Midrash is not merely that Abraham received the cave of Mahpela as a reward for his hospitality. It is important that Adam is also buried in the cave of Mahpela, the tomb of the forefathers, and this means that Jewish tradition dates back not to Abraham, but to Adam (through Noah, Shem, and Eber), that is, it emanates from the very beginnings of humanity. This emphasizes that Jewish tradition is universal, and by its very nature is common to all mankind, rather than particular to Judaism; its task is to bring all of humanity to God.
6.9 The Maturation of Ishmael and his Trial
(7) And gave it unto the servant.
Since the servant is not named, tradition seeks to identify him as one of the characters named earlier in the narrative, and claims it was Ishmael, who was 13 at the time: he has attained the age of maturation and is therefore fully capable to choose and make his own decisions. Abraham could bear Isaac only after Ishmael became an adult, since Ishmael’s trial was to learn to accept and recognize Isaac.
Passing the trial God places before Ishmael is his only way to receive his part of the inheritance; the trial consists of recognizing his lower position on the hierarchy and acknowledging that Isaac is the full fledged heir, while Ishmael is only the youngest member of the family. When Ishmael accepts this hierarchy, he will certainly receive his part of the inheritance, in the same way that Hagar, having realized Sarah’s superiority and her own status as a slave-woman, received a reward, although was previously expelled for her pretentiousness.
For this reason, it is vitally important for Ishmael to learn about all this as early as possible, and it will be even better if he finds out about it while Isaac is still “in the works,” so that he can start adjusting in advance. To be able to re-adjust, Ishmael had to be an adult—13 years old. Then, with the right to make his own decisions, he can choose for himself to agree or disagree with his new position in the family.
In the end, Ishmael was unable to cope with the trial and was expelled, but, from God’s perspective the opportunity to choose had been offered to him.
On the other hand, Abraham also had to ascertain that Ishmael could not be the successor of his movement. But for Ishmael to manifest himself, and for Abraham to understand this, Ishmael had to be an adult. Only then could Ishmael’s behavior convince Abraham that Abraham’s endeavor had to be continued by another son.
6.10 The Correlation of Judaism to Christianity and to Islam
As part of comparing the relationship between Ishmael and Isaac to that between Jacob and Esau, we will analyze the question: which of the two “daughter religions,” Islam or Christianity, is closer to Judaism? This is a very complicated question, having a few facets that need to be considered.
Comparing the degree of monotheism in Islam and in Christianity.
It is important to note that comparing the degrees of monotheism of these two religions is fairly difficult. In Christianity, the idea of Jesus is added onto God (this kind of religion is classified by Judaism as shituf [association]). For Jews, the Torah has a unique commandment, “Do not make any gods to be alongside” (Exodus 20:23), and therefore a religion of shituf is considered for Jews to be idolatry. But for the peoples of the world, shituf is not forbidden and not considered idolatry.
In Islam, no image is added to Allah, and therefore it is more purely monotheistic than Christianity.
However, the problem is that in Islam, Divinity is so deprived of attributes that its monotheism could easily degenerate into something “faceless.” The essence of monotheism is the dialogue between God and man, which is harder to attain if the “likeness of man and God” is hidden. Therefore, the Islamic form of monotheism contains an intrinsic error.
Incorrect understanding of Maimonides’ words about the possibility of Jewish prayer in a mosque.
We must note that in Jewish circles, one can often hear incorrect conclusions drawn on the basis of the famous statement made by Maimonides (Rambam) that “in times of need, a Jew can pray in a mosque, but never, under any circumstances, in a church.” They draw the incorrect conclusion from this that Islam is supposedly closer to Judaism than Christianity. But in reality, the possibility to pray is not a criterion for the closeness of religions. For example, an Orthodox rabbi would forbid praying in a Reform temple, because this legitimizes Reform Judaism, but this does not mean that Reform Judaism is farther from Orthodox Judaism than Islam. Thus, permission to pray in a certain place is not an indication of the closeness of religions, and people are simply drawing incorrect conclusions from Maimonides’ words.
The possibility of religious dialogue
Maimonides, however, made an additional halakhic decree (mentioned earlier), which states that, in principle, it is possible to have a religious dispute with Christians, but not with Muslims. The reason is that Christianity, at the very least, recognizes our texts and considers the Tanakh to be a sacred book (“The Old Testament”). On the basis of this common text, it is possible to explain our perspective to them, discuss different interpretations of the words, and analyze various translations of the Tanakh, etc. The Muslims, on the other hand, consider the text of the Tanakh to be false, so there is essentially nothing to discuss with them. They are a priori convinced we have distorted the words of God, so it is impossible to prove anything to them.
In Summary: Christianity is closer to Judaism than Islam
Considering the above discussion, Judaism has a great deal more common ground for a dialogue with Christians than with Muslims. Moreover, from the Jewish point of view, acceptance of the truth and Divinity of the Tanakh by the nations of the world is substantially more significant than the level of purity of their monotheism.
In light of this, it can be concluded that Christianity is much closer to Judaism than Islam.
6.11 Sarah’s Laughter and overcoming of her Gevura
(9) And they said unto him: ‘Where is Sarah thy wife?’ And he said: ‘Behold, in the tent.’ (10) And He said: ‘I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him. (11) Now Abraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. (12) And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ (13) And HaShem said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? (14) Is any thing too hard for HaShem. At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.’ (15) Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not’; for she was afraid. And He said: ‘Nay; but thou didst laugh.’
Ostensibly the situation is as follows: Sarah displays lack of faith by not believing in the possibility of a miracle. God reproaches her for this, but Sarah does not want to admit to her lack of faith. The lesson usually learned from this episode is that it is important to believe in the possibility of a miracle from God, and that even if Sarah did not consider the visitors to be angels she should have nevertheless wished for their words to come true, rather than saying that their prophesy was impossible.
However, delving deeper into an analysis of this dialogue, we see it should be understood differently. The usual interpretation of Sarah’s words, “my lord being old,” refers to Abraham, that is, a child cannot be born because both she and Abraham are too old. However, when God quotes Sarah’s words to Abraham, He “changes them for the sake of peace,” so that Abraham would not be angry with her. But such an understanding encounters several problems. First of all, if Sarah is too old to bear children, this is enough of a reason on its own, and adding that Abraham is also old makes no sense. Secondly, forty years after these events, after Sarah‘s death, Abraham marries Keturah, who bears him many children (see Genesis 25:1), which shows that Abraham has no problems with impotency. Moreover, if the words “Sarah laughed within herself” means “to herself” (“not out loud”), why does God ask Abraham, “Wherefore did Sarah laugh?” After all, if Abraham did not hear her laughter, how could he explain it? Not to mention the fact that it is unclear why God “complained” about Sarah to Abraham—can anything positive really be achieved in this way?
Thus, a typical understanding of this excerpt, firstly, does not agree with the text and, secondly, paints Abraham and Sarah’s dialogue with God in a monstrously primitive light, as a series of petty naggings and reproaches, which do not fit in the least with their image in the Torah.
And so, apparently we need to completely rework our understanding of Sarah’s words and God’s response. Specifically, the words “my lord being old” refer not to Abraham, but to God; that is, here “My Lord” is being discussed, not “a lord” (we should note that there are no capital letters in Hebrew).
By God’s “old age,” Sarah means that He no longer interferes with the natural order of things. “Old age” here refers to a cessation of variability, a loss of dynamics. Such an understanding agrees perfectly with God’s response: He does not mention Abraham’s old age, but says, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” In addition, if one supposes Sarah is referring to “the Lord’s old age,” then her sentence becomes logical: “I have become old, and God has stopped changing the world, and everything goes according to unchangeable laws of nature and therefore I will not be able to have a child.”
Moreover, given such an understanding, the deeper essence of the problem will also become clear: Sarah is Abraham’s gevura, and the tendency to follow laws, including the laws of nature is the most important characteristic of gevura; thus, Sarah’s words dramatically express the essence of this category.
Let us remember that hesed is not only kindness, but also a desire to change that which exists, while gevura is not only law and justice, but also an attempt to preserve the existing, since gevura believes the existing state of things is the proper state. Abraham is hesed, but Sarah, as part of Abraham’s family, is “gevura within hesed.” When they act as a family, Sarah together with Abraham realize hesed: turning others to believe in one God, receiving visitors, etc. However, in the relationship between Abraham and Sarah, she represents the category of gevura within the family.
It is because of her gevura that the natural law seems to Sarah to be immutable, and it is difficult for her to accept that God can change the laws of nature. The Almighty opposes her, saying that this too is possible.
In this interpretation, God’s response becomes understandable. His goal is not to nag and reproach, but to help Sarah in her spiritual development: He aims to teach Sarah to accept miraculous changes in the world and in life.
God speaks to Sarah and Abraham simultaneously, but it is His addressing Abraham, the category of hesed, that is emphasized.
To Sarah’s approach of “God created the world, launched it, and does not change its laws further,” God answers “Is any thing too hard for HaShem?” God expresses his willingness to break the laws governing the way the world runs, and thereby alters Sarah’s concept of the creation of the universe. It is this change in Sarah’s consciousness (which is also a development and refinement of the category of gevura), and not “telling Abraham of Sarah’s laughter,” that is the purpose of God’s words. And laughter plays a very important role here.
6.12 Sarah’s Inner Laughter
What does the concept of “laughter” mean? We laugh when the development of events or a story is unexpected, illogical, or unpredictable, and an opportunity arises to see more intricate connections between things than previously seen. Thus, the essence of laughter is happiness because, by rising above logic, by defeating it, we are able to see a higher level of world harmony. Destruction of the shackles of logic materializes in an unexpected plot twist in an anecdote, in a paradox, or in an emerging solution to a seemingly insolvable problem. Overcoming barriers driven by our former narrow-mindedness and overly primitive logical understanding of how the world works, gives us immense pleasure, and we express our joy through laughter. None of us like predictability and logical inevitability, but like being free, and overcoming the predetermined. Because freedom (and not compulsion) is a Divine quality, and laughter is a feeling of advancing towards God, who, according to Jewish belief, also laughs.
In other words, laughter is joy from overcoming gevura. Thus, laughter is Sarah’s correction. In Isaac’s case, who embodies gevura, even his very name speaks of laughter (Isaac literally means “he will laugh” in Hebrew).
In its essence, gevura always accepts life as it is, maintains that God set everything up in the best possible way and that praying for change is entirely senseless and unnecessary. This is why Sarah cannot believe that God will interfere and change her life. Sarah’s main problem, her disbelief in miracles, is not caused by a doubt in God’s almightiness, but because she does not believe in the necessity of miracles. Therefore, Sarah and Isaac, who embody gevura, rigidity, law, and “correctness” are tested in situations where the world develops illogically, unpredictably, and unexpectedly. It is good to be a proper person, but to be “overly proper” is ridiculous; the world is “not entirely proper,” and this is exactly what makes it so wonderful.
Subconscious joy at the overcoming of logic is the essence of Sarah’s laughter, but it is still “internal,” that is, Sarah is not yet aware of it. Sarah’s faith in overcoming nature has only been kindled, and God, by explicitly speaking about her laughter, invites Sarah to recognize it whereby He helps her with this advancement. (We should note that Abraham, hesed, does not have this challenge; he immediately laughs outwardly [Exodus 17:17]).
For this reason, Sarah’s laughter is not an expression of disdain for the overheard prophecy, but rather an emerging feeling of a possible breakthrough. However, on the conscious level she still does not believe in this breakthrough, since she knows that physiologically she cannot give birth. This is why she is unaware of her subconscious joy, her laughter.
Therefore, she sincerely denies it: “Then Sarah denied, saying ‘I laughed not,’ for she was afraid.” Certainly, saying that Sarah feared punishment or reprimand because she laughed at the words of the angels would be too primitive. The intension here is different: she feared to admit to herself that she had laughed, that she had believed in the illogical, nonstandard development of events. Like anyone, what frightened Sarah was the possibility that her entire worldview could collapse. For this reason she was afraid to recognize her laughter.
6.13 God Supports Sarah’s Laughter
As soon as the angel promises Sarah a son, Isaac’s soul begins descending into the world. This is why Sarah already feels that Isaac is growing within her, but for now she feels this subconsciously, in the deepest part of her soul. Physically, Isaac could not be manifested yet—the situation is still too covert—but a new reality has already entered the world. Sarah begins to sense this reality, and her subconsciousness recognizes and accepts the seemingly unreal possibility of motherhood.
Sarah’s laughter is a manifestation of hope, the first step in accepting the possibility of the unexpected. Thus, when Sarah pessimistically speaks of her old age and the old age of “her Lord,” inside she is subconsciously laughing at it. God does not rebuke Sarah; on the contrary, he assures her that she fears her own laughter in vain, because there is nothing unachievable for the Lord, and her son can come into existence.
God supports Sarah in her laughter; He wants her to believe in the new opportunity, that she will no longer fear laughing but recognize that this is normal, and thereby attain a new level. Consequently, the dialogue ends with God’s words: “Nay, thou didst laugh.” In reality, the dialogue continues, not right away, but when Sarah names her son Isaac, she means to say that “everyone, having seen, will laugh with her.”
(It should be noted that we can only understand why Sarah named her son Isaac if we accept that her laughter was a positive act. If Sarah’s laughter had been inappropriate and God had rebuked her for it, she would not have named her son “He will laugh.”)
In naming her son Isaac, Sarah gave a positive answer to God’s words: she has not only recognized that her laughter is necessary and that gevura must be limited, but has also invited everyone around her to join her.
In the same way that Abraham’s development consisted of limiting hesed, Sarah’s development consisted of limiting her gevura. These themes will be explored in the subsequent chapters.
6.14 Abraham advances toward the Judgment of Sodom
(16) And the men rose up from thence, and looked out toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way.
After the angels healed Abraham and informed him about his offspring, they stood up and went to Sodom.
The phrased used is “looked out toward Sodom” (lehashkif) which means “gazed with condemnation,” in preparation of judging it. This word belongs to the category of gevura, of judgment. It is not by chance that the destruction of Sodom coincides with the news of Isaac’s birth: when a righteous man of the category of judgment is about to be born, this category increases and intensifies and this means that the time has come to destroy Sodom. Abraham “went with them to bring them on the way”: he goes along with gevura because he wants to watch over the development of events himself, to understand what the category of judgment is, how it is realized, and how to properly utilize it. Abraham is not yet ready to accept the category of judgment, but is ready to progress in this direction.
6.15 God brings Abraham closer to the Category of Gevura
(17) And HaShem said: ‘Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I am doing; (18) Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? (19) For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of HaShem, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that HaShem may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him.’
Why can’t God conceal His plans from Abraham? How are the Divine plans about Sodom related to Abraham? Why is it necessary to relate them to him?
Of course, God could have destroyed Sodom even without discussing this problem with Abraham, but He wanted to draw Abraham into the judgment of Sodom, because it was necessary for Abraham’s training so that he could learn to develop within himself the category of judgment.
God invites Abraham, and now Abraham must express his opinion, act upon the category of judgment and begin learning about it.
6.16 Abraham’s Covenant as God’s Journey
In verse 19, God explains the reason for the selection of Abraham: “that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of HaShem, to do righteousness and justice.” Several aspects of this verse will be discussed here.
Firstly, God chose Abraham “so that,” rather than “due to.” In other words, Abraham is chosen not for his merits, but for a mission. There were, and always are, many worthy people in the world deserving of reward. Selection in Judaism is not a reward, but a burden and mission of the Jewish people in relation to humanity.
Secondly, Abraham is chosen “that he may command his children and his household after him.” Abraham himself is not what matters here, as great as he is, but his house and his descendants; the nation that will emerge from them is important, as is the direction in which this nation will develop.
And finally, “Keep the way of HaShem” is a much broader concept than observance of commandments. The Torah contains two phases of the Jewish covenant with God: (1) with Abraham and the forefathers, and (2) with Moses on Sinai. These covenants are combined in Judaism into a single whole, although they are quite distinct. Abraham’s covenant is the “journey of HaShem,” the first stage in the development of Judaism, in which the foundation is laid, the ideals and general direction are set, but there is no formalization of the commandments. On the other hand, the covenant of Moses, made on Sinai, is about specific commandments, details, and instructions.
On the level of the forefathers, a system of commandments does not exist yet; it develops much later during the Exodus from Egypt. The first primary level of Judaism is ideals, and the commandments come only in the second phase. If we forget that Judaism is, first and foremost, a religion of ideals, and begin to perceive it only as a religion of a system of commandments, we make a grave error. This kind of primitiveness leads to Judaism losing its essence and driving force, and turning into a parody of itself. We will discuss this question in more detail below.
6.17 Judaism’s Ideal as the integration of Mercy and Justice
What does “way of HaShem” mean, if not a compliance with the system of commandments? This “way” is formulated here as “to do righteousness and justice,” tzedaka u’mishpat. We have already noted that the word tzedaka has two distinct translations: “mercy” and “justice.” Since the idea of justice is already expressed here in the word mishpat (justice), then tzedaka most likely refers to mercy here, that is, the category of hesed. In this way, Abraham must command his descendants to mix mercy and justice, hesed and gevura, Law and Grace. Jewish tradition sees the ideal of Judaism in this combination, as a “way of HaShem.”
From the Jewish point of view, the contrast between hesed and gevura must be resolved not by prioritizing one over the other but by synthesizing them. It need not be mentioned that joining these two concepts is extremely difficult. Moreover, there are not and cannot be any specific instructions for the search of harmony between the two; rather, to implement this kind of synthesis, each person in every individual life situation should use his own moral and religious intuition. The system of ideals is based on a person’s choices and personality.
It is also important to note that, as opposed to the system of commandments, which cannot contain contradictions (and when they do appear they are resolved with the help of a legislative mechanism), the system of ideals not only can, but must, contain contradictions and oppositions. The subject will be discussed later in more detail.
6.18 Stories about Sodom
To open the discussion of Sodom’s destruction, we will present a few stories from the Midrash. Naturally, the Midrash does not suggest a literal understanding of these accounts, but claims that they are important not from a “historical-factual” point of view but for an understanding of how Jewish tradition views Sodom.
The Midrash says this was a city-kingdom under the rule of law, although, all its laws were distorted and violated justice. The laws of Sodom aimed to oppress those who did not have wealth or their own welfare. Each received only that which he earned: if someone was rich, that meant he was a worthy person, and had full opportunity to oppress those poorer than him (that is, those who were not affluent). If a person was very poor, or a traveler without shelter, then he had no rights whatsoever.
For example, the Midrash says the citizens of Sodom organized a communal herd, so it would not be necessary for each to hire his own shepherd. Despite this, someone who only had one cow was considered to have not “invested” enough property into the communal herd, and so was obligated to herd it for two days; the owner of two cows only had to herd for one day.
They also adopted a law that forbade giving charity to a poor man calling at the city, so that the poor would not come to Sodom and disturb its citizens. Sodom was a rich city, and had no need for neighboring beggars. But so as not to look bad in the eyes of the neighboring cities and create an image of generosity, they passed a law that each person must have a coin outside of circulation with his or her own name engraved on it, and it was permitted to give only these coins to the beggars. In this way, when a beggar asked for help in the Sodom Square, everyone tossed him coins, but each coin had the name of the person who had given it inscribed on it, and therefore nothing could be bought with it. The beggar died of starvation amidst all these coins, after which all the Sodomites took back their coins.
Here is another example of a Sodomite law: if a person hit another, then the beaten one had to pay his attacker for “constructive bloodletting.” Once, Eliezer, Abraham’s slave, was walking around Sodom, and a local assaulted and hit him. Eliezer grabbed him and brought him before the court, but the judge ordered Eliezer to pay the attacker “for bloodletting.” Then Eliezer hit the judge and said, “The money which you owe me, pay to him.”
An additional story is related in the Midrash: A traveler was making his way through Sodom and rented a room from a Sodomite for the night. Since the traveler feared thieves and had no bodyguards, before going to sleep he gave the owner of the house an expensive rug from his baggage to guard. In the morning, the traveler wanted to collect his rug, but the host answered that the traveler did not have any rug, and he had not taken anything to safeguard. The traveler said, “But there was a rug—it was colorful, with tassels.” The owner responded that color represented a long journey, and tassels meant good luck; as if to say, “There, I have interpreted your dream, now be on your way.” The traveler brought the owner before court, and the judge ruled: “this person is a very respectable citizen of Sodom, and you are a nobody. Therefore, pay him for the wonderful dream interpretation and leave.”
When someone came and asked for lodging for the night, he was presented with a standard Sodomite bed. If he was taller than the length of the bed, his legs were cut off. If he was shorter, they were stretched out on the rack. Indeed, how dare a traveler not correspond to the wonderful and ideal Sodomite beds! Such insolence on the part of the traveler demanded that he be subjected to “Sodomite correction.”
In this way, Sodom is presented in the Midrash as a place of lawfulness and order, in which, however, the laws were so hideous that they themselves became crimes. Because of this, Sodom had to be destroyed. If people have ethical laws and positive moral guidelines, but violate them, they can, nevertheless, at some point, improve; their conscience might yet awaken. But if they have formulated their crimes into a hideous, legislative system, they will continue believing that this is how one should live, and so there is no hope they will one day repent. Had the people of Sodom not been destroyed, they would have continued to kill; the very existence of Sodom in the world destroys it. For this reason, the Almighty decides to destroy Sodom.
6.19 The Trials of Sodom, Lot, and Abraham
(20) And HaShem said: ‘Verily, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous. (21) I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto Me; and if not, I will know.’ And the men turned from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before HaShem.
God informs Abraham (and here, He deliberately addresses Abraham) that “the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and… their sin is exceeding grievous”—that is, the cup of His patience is overflowing. “I will go down now, and see”—God (through the angels, His representatives) will go to Sodom, to give its citizens a last chance to mend their ways; he is doing a final check to see whether or not the time has come to destroy the city. But, at the same time, these words invite Abraham to “go down… and see” Sodom, to judge it. God presents Abraham with a challenge and gives the following overview: the time has come to judge Sodom, and you will decide together with Me whether they should be persecuted to the fullest extent, or if they can still be saved.
Thus, this situation is a test and a lesson not only for Sodom and Lot, but also for Abraham. Abraham accepts the challenge: although the angels are already on the way to Sodom, Abraham “stood yet before HaShem”—i.e. he does not leave, but prepares himself to raise objections.
God needs Abraham to protest, fight, and oppose Him. Only when Abraham argues with God will he be able to understand something on his own. After all, in order to advance in understanding, one must learn to think independently, to formulate and defend one’s point of view. Therefore, arguing with God is an important characteristic of the Jewish spiritual paradigm. This topic will be discussed in later sections of this book.
In order to give Abraham a lesson (God’s goal here, as we have just noted, is to bring Abraham closer to the “integration of mercy and judgment”), God needs to place him in a situation in which he will need to argue on the spot. And so God says he must make a final decision regarding Sodom right then and there.
As for Sodom, its main trial is Lot. At this time, Sodom had reached a critical period in its development, and, as the Midrash informs us, Lot was elected as its municipal judge.
The abomination of Sodom was its awful legislation. But Sodom also had positive elements: its citizens wanted to be a real social organism and live in a city with an organized and developed infrastructure. Despite this, even positive ideas in Sodom were realized perversely. When, finally, they elected Lot to be their judge, the Sodomites gained an opportunity to begin moving in a better direction. Electing Lot was Sodom’s last chance to change and be saved.
On the flip side, such a situation was also a trial for Lot—how will he behave?
Thus, everyone is tested here: Abraham, Lot, and the citizens of Sodom. These trials provide the opportunity for progress and improvement, but they can also become a cause for death. Sodom completely failed the test and was destroyed; Lot withstood his trial, more or less, although not completely; and Abraham was able to use the tests for his spiritual advancement.
6.20 The Destruction of Sodom and the Cleansing of the Category of Gevura
We have already mentioned the connection between the news of Isaac’s birth and the destruction of Sodom. Outwardly, this connection is displayed in that, when Isaac’s gevura is preparing to descend into the world, the category of gevura is strengthened throughout the universe. As a result, the Almighty destroys Sodom, and invites Abraham to judge it, so that Abraham can begin learning to combine mercy with law and judgment. But there is one more connection: before Isaac is born, a kind of cleansing of the quality of gevura needs to take place, and this occurred with the destruction of Sodom.
The “Sodomite sin” did not consist primarily of sexual perversity: this was just one of its external manifestations. The main quality and determining characteristic of the city of Sodom was its disproportionate and repulsive legality, its excess of gevura. The residents of Sodom approached human existence with a severe system of law: a person must earn his own sustenance, and so he who is poor, and even more so, he who asks for charity, is a parasite, and does not deserve to live. In their opinion, God did not create man so he would beg for charity—behavior below the dignity of a human being. “We,” the Sodomites would say, “live in this fertile valley, and have earned a good life for ourselves through hard work, yet now some scum beggars come and expect us to support them, and thus corrupt the world?”
Out of these same considerations, the citizens of Sodom forbade hospitality and kindness. After all, if God made this person poor or sick, without money for healing, then this must be God’s will, and what right do you have to help this person and interfere with Divine resolve? Let every man earn and pay for himself, and heal himself, and care for himself.
It should be noted that this approach contains some element of truth, but as a whole it is, of course, false. We cannot logically determine what God wants with respect to the beggar: for him to remain poor, or for us to help him. We do not know whether God wants the sick to remain sick, or if He is purposely giving the doctor a chance to heal him. If one does not want to earn money for his own sustenance, does not want to take care of himself, then, of course, outside aid will not help him. But there are many people who end up in a difficult situation because of various outside factors, and aid could help them get back on their feet.
Naturally, limitless hesed is corruptive, and can bring the world to collapse, but all-out gevura is even worse. If each person receives only that sustenance which he earns for himself, then the world (and such a society) does not have the right to exist, for even our ability to support and feed ourselves is Divine hesed. And if we do not show compassion to those closest to us, then we do not deserve it from God. In a world built entirely on the category of judgment, no one can survive. Isaac-gevura exists only because he is the son of Abraham-hesed. It’s true that a person must earn a living for himself, but it is your duty to help him. Try not only to give him money, but organize an opportunity for him to earn a living in such a way that your help will only serve as a starting point after which he will be able to support himself independently.
Gevura as an awareness that one must earn one’s own sustenance is a necessary quality, but it is needed to emphasize God’s goodness and mercy. God’s goodness is so great that God not only feeds us “from a spoon” (which would be “the bread of shame”), but gives us the opportunity to earn our sustenance, to feel that we are independent source of our own existence—and this is an expression of unity between hesed and gevura. Gevura is positive as an addition to hesed, but if it becomes self-sufficient, it leads to death. If hesed exceeds the limits, it turns unto corruption which lead to the Global Flood; but if gevura is overabundant, it makes the existence of human society impossible. Gevura must be severely restricted.
And so, the future arrival of Issac, the bearer of proper gevura, requires that the world to be rid of the perverse gevura of Sodom.
6.21 Abraham’s Dispute with God
(23) And Abraham drew near, and said, ‘Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? (24) Peradventure there are fifty righteous within the city: wilt Thou indeed sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? (25) That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: that so the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from Thee; shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?’
Sodom, a city deserving of annihilation, a city of villains guilty of countless sins, unexpectedly finds its defender in Abraham.
Abraham uses fairly strong language in his argument. “That be far from Thee to do after this manner…that be far from Thee…” The Hebrew chalila—unacceptable, unworthy—is a rather harsh term. Such words cannot be called a “plea for kindness”; it is a fairly serious conflict. It is important to understand: how does Abraham know what is right and good? Why can he speak against God’s resolve? Is such behavior acceptable?
In the classical Christian worldview, arguing with God is entirely unthinkable, and suggesting to speak against Divine decision sounds outrageous. According to Christianity, God’s relation with man is entirely based on God’s mercy: everything that God gives is a gift, an act of kindness, while man himself deserves nothing. If this is the case, then what could there possibly be to argue about? “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
The Jewish concept is different. It insists that not only is it possible to argue with God, it is even necessary to do so. Abraham and Moses both argued with God, and Jacob was rewarded for arguing with the name Israel, whose literal translation is “he who combats God.” Disputing with the Almighty is a normal way to establish a dialogue with and become closer to Him, rather than an expression of rebellion against Him. This is a fundamental notion of Jewish tradition.
Although on the one hand, Jewish religious consciousness declares that “no matter what God does, it is all for the best,” it also creates a mindset which encourages people to actively transform their life and even dispute with God. Such a dispute is far from being a “rebellion against God,” because He Himself encourages us to conduct this kind of debate.
It is important to note that a person’s relationship with his children in particular, and people in general, directly corresponds to his approach to the relationship between man and God. If, for example, a person believes that God only gives people incomprehensible and unquestionable orders, and that man’s duty is only to obey and submit, then he will himself be inclined to give commands to those around him and dictate his will to others. Alternatively, if one believes that “God is love” and that God’s relationship to man is purely mercy, then children are primarily expected to love and agree, and the main value becomes humility.
But the Jewish approach looks at the world differently. Naturally, God wants both love and agreement from us, and sometimes submission, but above all else and most importantly, He wants maturation. He wants us to rise to the level of dialogue with Him, to become co-partners with Him in the management of the world. To become this co-partner we must not only love and agree, but sometimes also argue, insist upon our point of view, think critically. It is not accidental that Jews who have argued with Him since ancient times acted the same way in their relationships among themselves and with other people, so much so that the inclination to argue and dispute became a characteristic trait of the Jewish nation.
6.22 Godliness within us as the Basis for Dispute with God
What is Abraham relying on when he argues with God that “be far from thee to do?” Where is the religious and moral support for his arguments? Is not God Himself the source of morality, kindness, and justice? So then why does Abraham take it upon himself to determine what is right and proper, and what isn’t; what is good and what is evil? If this is Abraham’s personal opinion, then how can it be held up against the words of God?
The fact is that by arguing with God Abraham is also drawing on Godliness—on that Godliness which is within himself. To argue with Divinity, one must oppose it with another Divinity. Since man is made “in God’s image,” God is not only “external to us,” but also “within us.” In this sense, Adam, Abraham, and all of us are “demigods” (and this is exactly the Judaic concept of a “demigod”). It is the Divine spark within us that allows us to disagree with God. In other words, this is the argument between “transcendent Divinity,” that manifestation of God which speaks to us from the outside (for Abraham, it was the word of God, while for us today it is Divine tradition that comes from Sinai), and “immanent Divinity,” i.e. the manifestation of the Godly spark within us, which tells us how things ought to be. This image of God within us is called our conscience. The conflict between the moral-ethical feeling (immanent Divinity) and tradition-halakha (transcendent Divinity) is a vital source of Judaism’s development throughout its centuries of existence.
Thus, Abraham, a person of hesed and mercy, accuses God Himself of unworthy behavior, and puts forth a demand to call-off the trial. He does not beg God to spare the righteous or the sinners, but rather adamantly (although very respectfully) rejects God’s decision and twice repeats: “That be far from thee.”
Generally speaking, we had not at all expected such words or tone from Abraham. If someone today used this manner of speaking against, for example, a human judge, it could be qualified as contempt of court. But God allows Abraham to speak to Him in this way, because His goal is not for a person to agree with Him and reject his own point of view. God’s goal is for man to become an individual with whom He can have a dialogue, capable of opposing Him. An opponent must be fairly independent, to know how to argue and to have the courage to disagree. Psychology teaches us that a child has matured only when capable of disagreeing with his parents. And what God wants from humans above all else, as we have noted, is maturation.
6.23 The Contrast between Abraham and Noah
We have already noted that the debate between Abraham and God reflects one of the most important differences between Abraham and Noah. As a result of this difference, only Abraham was able to become the forefather of the chosen people. When God informed Noah that the world would be destroyed and that he must build an ark for his own deliverance, Noah did not argue with God, and did not try to discuss salvation of all humanity or the possibility of changing the situation. He simply agreed and did as he was told.
However, compliance is not at all the Jewish ideal. The Jewish approach is to first ask God, “Why must it be done this way? Must it be done in exactly this way? Can it not be done in some other way?” and then to condemn the Divine command as not being merciful or just enough.
Noah is obedient; he “walks with God.” Abraham “walks before God” (17:1) and argues with Him, if he sees it necessary.
Jewish teaching calls Abraham’s actions “an awakening from below” which, in turn, bring about “an awakening from Above.” Naturally, God Himself can do anything, but often He does not act of his own initiative, does not exhibit His own qualities until “the awakening from below” occurs. Only in response to the awakening from below does the Divine awakening from Above occur and then the situation is repaired.
Even the smallest awakening from below, a person’s small advancement towards God, can prompt God to come a great distance towards the person. All the while that a person doesn’t make any movements of his own accord, God does not help him; He waits. Abraham is a symbol of an awakening from below. He begins to act on his own. He is active—he argues with God about Sodom, even though Sodom is not the entire world, but only a part of it, a place quite far from Abraham’s spiritually. This is why God said to him, “Walk before Me”—be independent, call for the awakening of My mercy, and even fight with me.
6.24 Abraham’s Hesed and the Salvation of Evildoers
This was Abraham’s original position in his argument with God: conducting justice is impossible because any attempt to do justice leads to injustice. How can the Judge of all the earth, the very category of justice, not act justly—that is, allow His punishment to be inflicted on the innocent?
Abraham does not ask God to have mercy on the citizens of Sodom. Abraham formulates his argument in terms of justice, although, in effect, he does not speak of justice.
Justice would require reward for the righteous and punishment for the evildoers. Thus, acting in accordance with justice would require separating the righteous from the evildoers, leading the righteous out of the city and then destroying the evildoers. But Abraham completely ignores this method of saving the righteous. He insists that these fifty (or forty-five, or forty, thirty, twenty…) righteous people must save the entire city. Thus, Abraham’s goal is not to save the righteous (which would be just); rather it is to save the wicked. He wants hesed, general mercy, and grace. More than this, Abraham uses the existence of the righteous as a plea for the salvation of the wicked!
Abraham does not even ask God to wait until the evildoers possibly repent. If he had wanted to wait for the sinners to repent, he could have said “Do not destroy the city now; give them time…” But Abraham takes up a different position.
The Midrash puts the following words into Abraham’s mouth: “If You want judgment, there will be no universe (that is, the world will be destroyed). If You want the world to live, do not apply the category of judgment.” From this point of view, there is no room for the category of judgment in the world. No matter how carefully the destruction of evil is conducted, something good will inevitably die as well, and therefore evil should not be destroyed.
Essentially, Abraham presents a position which is still far from the ethics of Judaism. He says to God, “Since it is natural for You to give, and You created people with the free will to be villains, then You must take responsibility for what You created and not destroy them.”
In this way, Abraham is not yet ready for the idea of combining mercy and justice. He does not yet feel these ideals can be combined; for him, they are too different. Moreover, establishing justice will not be a worthy deed since the righteous would die alongside the sinners.
In modern times, people who hold such opinions oppose, for example, leading a real war against terrorist organizations, because, during the war “blameless people” could suffer. From a balanced Jewish point of view (Abraham + Isaac + Jacob), it is clear that such a position is false, and leads to a collapse of the world. But Abraham was still only at the beginning of the Jewish path, epitomizing pure hesed. Later on, he would have to be completed and balanced out by Isaac and Jacob.
6.25 Sodom as Abraham’s Spiritual Failure
However, there is an additional very significant reason why Abraham defended Sodom. This reason is not apparent from a simple reading of the text.
Sodom is the complete opposite of Abraham, his antithesis. If Abraham accepts guests and is hospitable to everyone, then Sodom, conversely, does not accept guests and is inhospitable to everyone. Abraham aims for mercy; Sodom forbids it. Despite their differences, Abraham is nevertheless tied to Sodom through a fairly long tale of interrelations: Lot’s settling in Sodom, Abraham’s participation in the war of kings, the forthcoming birth of Ammon and Moab from sons of Lot and his daughters, and lastly, the Moabite Ruth’s and Ammonite Naamah’s part in the founding of the house of David, of which the messiah is a descendant. Without a spark from Sodom, the messiah can never be born.
The reason for Abraham’s request is not only that the Divine spark from Sodom is necessary for the birth of the messiah. The other, more covert, reason is that Abraham feels partially responsible for the destruction of Sodom. It has been discussed that after the war with the kings, Abraham could have become the ruler of Sodom and restructured its life, but he did not want to rule. He wanted people to come to God and justice on the basis of their own free will—and this is the result of his decision.
The king of Sodom asked Abraham to “Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself” (14:21), that is, in this situation, the souls of the Sodomites were truly in Abraham’s hands. He could have forced the Sodomite king to submit and establish proper laws in the city. But Abraham did not do any of this because he did not want to employ power—that is, gevura.
Now, Sodom is condemned to destruction, and this, at least partly, is a result of Abraham’s passivity. Sodom’s punishment is a reproach to Abraham. That is why now, when God is preparing to destroy Sodom, He invites Abraham to the trial—as if to see the consequences of his actions. And Abraham argues with God and bargains about the number of righteous people in the city not only out of hesed, but also because this problem contains a personal aspect for him. The collapse of Sodom is to a large extent a personal tragedy for Abraham as well.
6.26 The Fault of the Righteous in the Calamities of the Generation
A righteous man is responsible not only for himself, but also for the people around him. There is an enormous difference between the concepts “righteous man” and “non-evildoer.” An evildoer is one who does not commit crimes and leads a worthy life. But a righteous man falls into an entirely different category. His job is to perfect and reeducate those around him. In other words, if those around him act unworthily, it means the righteous man is not fulfilling his obligations.
However, teaching is only one aspect of a righteous man’s responsibilities for his generation. Another aspect of the righteous’ fault for his generation’s problems is his intensifying (even unwittingly) the category of gevura. Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, in the book Midrash Pinchas wrote, “Why must the righteous men of every generation pray for the entire generation? It is because they are guilty of the misfortunes which plague humanity.”
The very existence of a righteous man in the world is an accusation against the evildoers. Before Noah, no one was referred to as a righteous man, but then Noah appeared, and a flood was released upon the world. When the righteous Abraham arrives, catastrophe strikes Sodom and Gomorrah. The very appearance of the righteous man, his ability to ascend to a level that everyone else is unable to attain, is a charge against them. For this reason, the righteous should be very wary that their righteousness does not lead to judgment of other people, because they too would be partially at fault for their punishment. Righteousness must be lofty—one must strive for people to reach repentance, without emphasizing their flaws and sins.
6.27 Sodom can be improved only by the Messiah who emerges from Sodom
Is it possible, in theory, to rectify Sodom? Of course it is, but you can fix something only if you bear a relationship to it—otherwise, what could you possibly know of it? Therefore a person, who is capable of rectifying Sodom, must have a spark of Sodom in his soul, contain something from the place, must be a part of it to some degree. Such a person is, of course, David and the Messiah after him because David hails from Sodom (through Ruth and Moab).
In other words, the element of “Sodomness” is a reality of the world, whose existence cannot be ignored, and so the Messiah who rectifies the entire world must also carry this spark within him.
To correct Sodom using hesed is impossible. David is malkhut, kingship, and he is suitable for repairing Sodom. Sodom aims to be a socialized, government structure, and without clear-cut laws and strict measures that ensure their observance it could not exist. And so it is not accidental that the very category of malkhut (David) begins to be born with the aid of Sodom.
Later (19:15) we will read the words of the angel who addresses Lot: “Take thy wife, and thy two daughters, that are found here.” The Midrash connects these words with the words from Psalms (89:20) where God says: “I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him.” “Where did God find David?” asks the Midrash. It responds, “He found him in Sodom.” Lot’s two daughters were “the find,” without which David and the Messiah would not have been possible.
6.28 The Saint within the City
Let’s return to the dialogue between God and Abraham regarding the question of forgiving Sodom.
(26) And HaShem said: ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will forgive all the place for their sake.’
God, who was speaking about the destruction of Sodom, suddenly recognizes that Abraham is right. Abraham criticizes God, and God agrees with him, but on one condition.
Abraham requests that God “save the whole place for the sake of the righteous people within it.” The righteous person must not only save himself, but his presence must also save the entire city. In His response to Abraham, God agrees overall with this principle, and considerably refines it by emphasizing two important points: Firstly, the city can be saved not by an individual righteous man, but by a community, a group: “If I find fifty righteous men…” And in fact, if there are fifty righteous men in a city of evildoers, this means that the citizens are not real evildoers—if they were real evildoers, they would have killed their righteous men—and this means that the city can still put right. And even when God agrees to a smaller number of righteous people, He does not go below ten, since this is the minimum number necessary to constitute a community.
Secondly, the community of righteous men must be “within the city,” i.e. legally recognized as its resident. That is, a righteous man is not someone who lives in his corner, not doing evil to others but also not noticed by anyone; rather, righteous people must be some sort of social class, albeit a minimal one, but still noticeable, visible within the city. From this we can understand that the righteous save a city (or a country) only when they are given the opportunity to live normally and openly in this place.
The general idea that righteous people do not only save themselves, but the entire city is connected with the hope that the evildoers will be rectified. But this is possible only when the righteous are granted the possibility to influence the city. If the righteous are not a social class, if the citizens suppress or drive out their righteous, then, in a critical moment, there is no one to save the city.
6.29 Reduction of the Righteous to a Necessary Minimum
(27) And Abraham answered and said: ‘Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the L-rd, who am but dust and ashes. (28) Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous; wilt Thou destroy all the city for lack of five?’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy it, if I find there forty and five.’ (29) And he spoke unto Him yet again, and said: ‘Peradventure there shall be forty found there.’ And He said: ‘I will not do it for the forty’s sake.’ (30) And he said: ‘Oh, let not the L-rd be angry, and I will speak. Peradventure there shall thirty be found there.’ And He said: ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ (31) And he said: ‘Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the L-rd. Peradventure there shall be twenty found there.’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy it for the twenty’s sake.’ (32) And he said: ‘Oh, let not the L-rd be angry, and I will speak yet but this once. Peradventure ten shall be found there.’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.’
Since God “gives in” during the argument, Abraham insists even more. However, Abraham does not ask God, “Why will you not have mercy on forty-five?” but rather phrases the question as, “Will you really destroy the whole city for a lack of righteous people?”—he is trying to “bargain” more mercy out of God.
6.30 An Approach to God through Dispute with Him
Despite Abraham’s increasing demands, God continues the dialogue with him, and in doing so trains Abraham to think in terms of argument with God.
During the argument, Abraham maintains his distance and reverence: “I have taken upon me to speak unto the L-rd, who am but dust and ashes” and “let not the L-rd be angry.” Abraham does not forget, even for a second, who he is in relation to God, yet nonetheless he continues to insist.
Additionally, it is important to note that Abraham’s argument with God does not move him away from God, but rather draws him closer to Him: “And Abraham drew near” (18:23). Following Abraham’s example, Judaism considers it entirely legitimate to discuss the fairness or unfairness of Divine actions; for example, the entire Book of Job is dedicated to this theme. But such questions are constructive only if a person asks them to strengthen his connection with God; they will become destructive if they are used as an excuse for rupturing this connection, when the person says, “I do not understand how God allows this or that, and so I reject faith.”
As we have already noted, the argument between Abraham and God is founded on the conflict between the immanent and transcendent manifestations of Divinity in the world. What are the possible solutions to this conflict? Rabbi A.I. Kook was of the opinion that the (transcendental) Law and (immanent) Conscience have a common Divine source, and if they are conflicting, it is only because of our mistaken understanding of one or the other. That is, if our conscience opposes some instruction from God, this means there is a mistake somewhere: either we have misunderstood the transcendental (i.e. what exactly the Law prescribes in the given situation), and then we need to refine this understanding, or on the contrary, we were mistaken in our perception of the imminent, which is often the case when rash “conclusions drawn on the basis of impulsive manifestations of conscience,” are made, and then it is necessary to once again gather complete information about the situation and analyze it to a greater depth.
In life, we often see that different community groups are more inclined either towards paying considerably greater attention to the transcendental, or, conversely, in the direction of immanent manifestation of Divinity. For example, in contemporary Israeli society, the ultra-Orthodox often take the transcendental manifestation of God (Law) as absolute, while the “non-religious” absolutize His immanent manifestation (the Conscience). Moreover, both groups often do not want to notice the other manifestation of Divinity. The solution consists of seeing elements of the Divine in someone else’s values without rejecting one’s own principles.
6.31 The Conclusion of the Discussion between God and Abraham
(33) And HaShem went His way, as soon as He had left off speaking with Abraham; and Abraham returned unto his place.
God leaves only when the discussion is over. Abraham stops asking—i.e. Abraham inwardly agrees that it is necessary to judge evildoers and that there is a place in the world for the category of judgment, but at the same time he does not express an explicit agreement with the destruction of Sodom, even if ten righteous men are not found in it. Abraham does not leave the category of hesed because he “returned unto his place,” but he gradually stops being a “fanatic of hesed,” and this is an important step in Abraham’s personal development as well as a rectification of the category of hesed in the soul of the Jewish people. (Similarly, in our lives, it is important to be a supporter of peace and love, but it is destructive to be a “fanatic of love” or a “fanatic of peace.”)
Surely, God does not need sanction from Abraham to destroy Sodom. He simply wants Abraham to understand that there is a limit beyond which evildoers must not only be judged, but also destroyed, and precisely this understanding was reached at the outcome of the debate.
It is possible that the Islamic idea that the Koran was passed down to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel (Dzebrail) who is associated with the category of gevura, is connected to this.
 For example, according to the Torah, Adam had to work in heaven, to cultivate the garden (2:15). Jewish heaven is a place where one can work using one’s head, a place of intellectual toil, where the physical is realized on its own, as a result of spiritual advancement. (For further reference: this is discussed more in detail in “Two Stories of the Creation of the World,” chapter 5). The European-Christian heaven, described as a “place of peace,” would be completely intolerable for a Jew, as he would die of boredom there.