Now the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot. [Genesis. 18:1]
Nobody said the life of a biblical patriarch would be easy.
Picture this: Abraham has just been circumcised. He’s 99 years old and he’s in great pain. He’s also longing to do something good for people, but Hebron is in the middle of a heat wave and Sarah is out of commission.
So, G-d sends three angels dressed up as Bedouins. Abraham drops everything and runs to the visitors, begging them to come in. He brings them water to wash their feet. He prepares the finest meal and sits them under the cool shade of a tree.
And he said, “My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant. Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree. [Genesis. 18: 3-4]
But the angels have come on business. One brings great news: Sarah will have a child in another year. The other has not such good news: Evil Sodom and its sister city Gomorrah will be destroyed.
A lesser man would have thought: Good, let them burn, and by the way, do you have any Tylenol?
But Abraham is a father of the world. His mantra is everybody counts. His first question to G-d is “Will you annihilate the righteous with the wicked?”
Now, let’s look at the end of this week’s Torah portion of Vayeira. Here, G-d tells Abraham to take his only son and bring him for a sacrifice. Daddy doesn’t say a word. Don’t the same rules apply to his son as to evil Sodom? Is there any question whether Isaac is righteous?
This exchange puzzled the sages for thousands of years. Moses Ben Maimon, or Maimonides, says in his “Guide for the Perplexed” that the story of Isaac was a dream, a divine vision as others experienced by the patriarchs.
What the sages do agree is that G-d did not change his mind. He never intended for Isaac to be killed, and it is probable that Abraham knew that. The entire incident was a test of Abraham’s faith: Was he willing to obey any and every divine commandment regardless of the cost? Here, Abraham’s faith depended on his deeds not his words.
Regarding Sodom, however, Abraham could not be silent. He was well aware of the evil in that city. He knew that Sodom and Gomorrah were based on pure wickedness in which the greatest punishment was reserved for the generous and kind. They citizens deserved no mercy because they never had shown mercy.
And yet, perhaps there were 50, maybe 40, maybe even 10 righteous? The question sounds absurd. Why would anybody with a conscience live in Sodom?
Abraham saw another possibility. Perhaps there were good people trapped in a wicked environment. The sages say Sodom did not allow visitors. Chances are the city’s leaders didn’t allow people to escape either. Call it an Iron Curtain, Berlin Wall, Great Wall of China or the barbed wire around North Korea.
G-d agreed with Abraham. He would examine Sodom and Gomorrah. Have they changed their ways? He would also investigate the screams of a young woman that filled the streets of the city.
“I will descend now and see, whether according to her cry, which has come to Me, they have done; [I will wreak] destruction [upon them]; and if not, I will know.” [Genesis. 18: 21]
The Talmud in Sanhedrin [109b] says the Torah refers to a girl in Sodom who saw a starving man. Violating every law, she gave him food. Soon, the secret police arrived, arrested the girl, brought her to a judge who pronounced a horrible sentence. She was tied to a stake on a rooftop, covered with honey, where the bees would feast on her flesh. Nobody came to her rescue.
Sodom marked the opposite of Abraham. In Sodom, charity and kindness were seen as treason, a challenge to an evil regime that sought to make the people into robots with no human feeling except fear. The young people were the worst, afforded no freedom except the opportunity to hurt the good. Perhaps that girl was the last of the righteous. Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed.
Later, Abraham’s behavior is different. When G-d tells him to bring Isaac for a “burnt offering,” Abraham does not flinch. He remains silent. The patriarch knows that Isaac and his home are completely good. Unlike his debate on Sodom, there is no need for clarification. Abraham recognizes G-d’s commandment as a test. And a large part of that test is the element of ambiguity.
This is how Shlomo Ben Yitzhaki, or Rashi, sees it. G-d was purposely vague with Abraham from the beginning, when He told the first Jewish man to leave his home “to the land that I will show you.”
“The Holy One, blessed be he, makes the righteous wonder, and only later reveals [His intention] to them,” Rashi, quoting the Midrash, says. “This is meant to increase their reward.”
G-d’s test ends as soon as Abraham places Isaac on the altar and draws his knife. At that point, the angel tells Abraham to stop. He is not to hurt his son, or even nick him. The patriarch is not happy: “So, all that I have done has been in vain.”
No, the angel replies. This test will serve as a guarantee for the survival of that nation that will emerge from you. G-d will apply the same standard of love and charity that you employed with Sodom. Abraham’s charity would set a model for eternity.
Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, the 16th century scholar and mystic known as the Maharal, says the highest level of service to G-d is to help a fellow man. This is even greater than seeing the divine presence.
And he said, “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him. For now, I know that you are a G-d-fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me…And through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world because your hearkened to My voice.” [Genesis: 22:12, 18]