Mordechai Silverstein

Boldly Taking on God

Avraham is renowned in the Western traditions as an exemplar of faith par excellence, but Judaism places equal emphasis on Avraham’s role as an advocate for justice, mercy and what seems to him right. God recognizes these qualities in Avraham: “for I have embraced him (Avraham) so that he will charge his sons and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice…” (Genesis 18:19) These virtues are immediately put to the test when God seeks to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their wickedness. It is here, when Avraham advocates to save the people of these cities from the punishment which God has in store for them, that his greatness is truly on display.

Avraham, of course, is famous for his bargaining God down to save these malfeasant cities from their fate. He negotiates with God to save the cities even if there are only ten righteous people among them. Unfortunately, even that number could not be found. If Avraham’s bargaining with God in the Torah was considered bold, then the sages’ depiction of his argument with God was downright audacious. One example will suffice. In the Torah, Avraham makes the following argument with God: “Far be it from You (God) to do such a thing (destroy the cities), to put to death the innocent with the guilty, making innocent and guilty the same. Far be it from You! Will not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (Genesis 18:25-26)

The last sentence in this confrontation is rhetorical, urging God to save the city on behalf of the righteous for the sake of justice. Still, this approach creates a problem. There were an insufficient number of righteous people to save the city. What are the ramifications of carrying out such a strict judgement on the fate of the world? This question prompted the following midrash: “Said Rabbi Levi: ‘The Judge of the world should not do justice!’ (Pay attention to how this verse is expressed above.) If it is a world that You (God) want then You cannot have strict justice and if it is strict justice that You want, then You will have to forgo the world. You cannot hold the rope at both ends. [If} You want the world and You want justice [then] You have to give a little or the world will not continue to exist. The Holy One Blessed be He quoted a verse from Psalms to Avraham: ‘You love righteousness and hate wickedness’ (Psalms 45:8) You, Avraham love to vindicate My creatures and to prevent rendering them guilty!” (Adapted from Bereishit Rabbah 49:9)

Rabbi Levi reads two biblical verses “creatively” in his presentation. In the first instance, he turns the verse from Genesis, noted above in bold print, from a rhetorical question into a statement pressing God to moderate His behavior in carrying out his decree. In the second case, he reads the verse from Psalms at the end of his drasha, which ostensibly describes the virtuous behavior of God’s anointed king, instead as a divine description of Avraham’s behavior.

One cannot underestimate the significance of this midrash. In it, Avraham demands moral justice from God, attempting to convince Him that His approach to the question of dispensing justice in the world is inadequate and will cause the destruction of the world. In addition, we, too, might take heed to his words. Ultimately, what Rabbi Levi reminds us is that thinking in absolute terms, seeing life in the world as black and white, is destructive. God is not the only one for whom this is valuable advice.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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