Midrash Tanchuma Vayera – Sodom and Isaac. Contrasts in Compassion

Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, Leiden ca. 1494–1533 Leiden)

Surely one of the toughest questions on the Parsha is why does Abraham protest the destruction of  Sodom and Gomorrah but not G-d’s request to sacrifice his own son?

Let’s first understand Sodom. 

Abraham’s nephew Lot. A yardstick for how immoral Sodom was

It’s no accident that the English word sodomy comes from Sodom. (See edenics.org) There are many Midrashim which dramatize how the city ordinances of Sodom made kindness a crime punishable by death. But you don’t have to go that far. The Parsha provides concrete examples. An angry mob wants to sexually assault Lot’s male guests. Perhaps an even more poignant example was how the morals of Sodom affected Lot. After all, Lot grew up in Abraham’s household and absorbed Abraham’s principles of  “Chessed” (loving kindness) and hospitality. Yet Lot’s idea of extending hospitality to the 2 angels almost devolved into a loathsome exchange. To assuage the lust of the angry mob, Lot offered them his own daughters.

Midrash Tanchuma points out that Lot’s behavior crossed all moral boundaries in terms of a father’s normal instincts to protect his daughters. His twisted sense of hospitality ended in a bizarre twist of fate. Lot ended up having relations with these very same daughters.

“Lot said to the men of Sodom: ‘I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please’ (Genesis  19:7). Normally, a man would prefer to undergo death for the sake of his daughter or his wife; indeed he would willingly kill or be killed for their sake, but this man was willing to allow his daughters to be abused. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to him: By your life, keep them (your daughters) for yourself! “

G-d opens Himself up to criticism

G-d shares His intention to destroy Sodom with Abraham, knowing full well that Abraham will go to great lengths to save Sodom and the surrounding cities. According to Midrash Tanchuma, Abraham went so far as to ask G-d if He (G-d) was exhibiting a human weakness of losing His temper and being indiscriminate in His anger between the innocent and the guilty. Abraham further questioned whether G-d was profaning His own name? 

“Will you, indeed, sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23) What is implied by this verse? That he (Abraham) spoke harshly to Him (G-d) and said: Anger consumes a human being, but is it possible that you are so angry that you would sweep away the righteous with the wicked? … this verse implies that he (Abraham) was suggesting, “Would it not be a desecration of Your name if You were to act in this manner? Did You do that with the generation of the flood, or the generation of the separation? Surely, that is not Your way.”

Why didn’t Abraham protest G-d’s request to sacrifice Isaac?

Perhaps the answer lies in the difference between two distinct situations. When G-d asked Abraham his opinion about destroying Sodom, Abraham did not hold back from trying to save the people. When G-d commanded Abraham directly to sacrifice his son, Abraham proceeded with unquestioning faith. 

We cannot even fathom what it means to have G-d communicate directly with us. If we did, would we dare ignore G-d’s request?

We could stop here. 

Perhaps it’s not the most satisfying answer. But it will have to do.

However, Midrash Tanchuma provides a different insight into this most difficult question.  In a heart to heart talk Abraham had with G-d after the angels intervened,  Abraham shares with G-d how difficult it was to follow G-d’s original request. 

Abraham and Isaac had doubts

There is a famous dictum in the Talmud:

“Reish Lakish says: Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one” (Talmud Baba Batra 16A) 

So when Midrash Tanchuma depicts the attempts of Satan to dissuade both Abraham and Isaac from going through with G-d’s directive, it can be understood that they were plagued with doubts. 

Satan challenged Abraham:

“Why should an old man, who has a son at the age of a hundred, destroy him?” 

When that didn’t work Satan then tried to challenge Isaac:

 “..your mother fasted (and prayed) for your birth, and now this demented old man is about to sacrifice you.”

According to Midrash Tanchuma, Abraham was grappling with another issue as well. G-d’s contradictory statements: He was asked to sacrifice the very son through which all his descendants would come: 

“I swear that I shall not descend from this altar until I say what I wish to say.”… “Yesterday You told me that Isaac was to be my descendant and now You said to me: Take him for a burnt-offering! But I conquered my emotions and I did not challenge You. Therefore, when Isaac’s descendants sin and are being oppressed, recall the binding of Isaac, consider it as if his ashes were piled upon the altar, and pardon them (the Jewish People) and release them from their anguish.”

What does is mean to “conquer your emotions?”

The Midrash is giving us a glimpse into who Abraham was. Abraham was a man who was able to put aside all these doubts, contradictions,  and, incredibly, a father’s natural compassion for his son.  For what? Because G-d said so? Yes. For another reason as well. Abraham was hoping that his dramatic sacrifice would  assure forgiveness for future generations despite their abundance of transgressions. 

What kind of person has the strength to do this.  The answer can be found in Ethics of Our Fathers:

“Ben Zoma said:.. Who is the true hero? He who subdues his own emotions”
(Talmud Avot 4:1)

This was Abraham. Silent yes, But not without overcoming great internal battles. 

What was G-d’s response?

“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, answered: ‘You have spoken what was in your heart, now I will say what is in my heart. In the future, Isaac’s descendants will sin against Me, and I will judge them on Rosh Hashanah. If they want Me to find something to their credit, ….“Let them blow the ram’s horn … and I will save them and redeem them from their sins.”

Abraham’s heroism is codified in one of our most powerful prayers

As it turns out, Abraham was consistent. Questioning G-d about the people of Sodom and not questioning G-d about sacrificing Isaac, had the same objective. To save lives. And while Lot’s morals were so corrupted that he lacked natural compassion for his own daughters. Abraham had such a high degree of compassion that it took unimaginable heroics to carry out G-d’s will.

No wonder Abraham’s ability to suppress his compassion for Isaac is a major building block of our Rosh Hashanah prayers:

“..Remember in our behalf, the Lord, our G-d, the covenant, the kindness and the oath which You swore to our father Avraham …and how he suppressed his compassion to do Your will with a whole heart; so may Your compassion suppress Your anger against us..”
(The
 Zikhronot section of the Musaf in the Rosh Hashana Prayer Book)

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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