Parshat Vayeira: For If We Knew, We May Concede

This week’s Parsha contains a mind-blowing story that teaches us what it means to be a human being in a relationship with the Divine. Just days after becoming a Jew, God reveals to Abraham and the three visiting angels His plans to wipe out the city of Sodom as punishment for their sins: 

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי-רָבָּה; וְחַטָּאתָם–כִּי כָבְדָה, מְאֹד.  אֵרְדָה-נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה; וְאִם-לֹא, אֵדָעָה. וַיִּפְנוּ מִשָּׁם הָאֲנָשִׁים, וַיֵּלְכוּ סְדֹמָה; וְאַבְרָהָם–עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד, לִפְנֵי ה’. וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר:  הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע. אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם, בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר; הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם, לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ. חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְ–הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט. וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אִם-אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר–וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל-הַמָּקוֹם, בַּעֲבוּרָם….וַיֵּלֶךְ ה’–כַּאֲשֶׁר כִּלָּה, לְדַבֵּר אֶל-אַבְרָהָם; וְאַבְרָהָם, שָׁב לִמְקֹמוֹ

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham approached Him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”…When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, He left, and Abraham returned to his place.  (Bereshit 18:20-33)

While the angels accept God’s plan and simply walk away without a word, something doesn’t sit right with Abraham. With all the awe and trepidation in the world, he questions the Judge of all Judges on His Justice. And when he sees that God responds favorably, he musters up his holy chutzpah once again and enters a full-on negotiation with the Master of the World. “What if there are 45 righteous people in the city? 40? 30? 20? 10?”

Ultimately, it turns out that the city of Sodom is corrupt to its core, and God follows through with His original plan. So what does this story come to teach us? Despite the fact that Abraham was both chutzpadik and wrong, he is not punished for challenging God and defending the sinners of Sodom. 

Struggling with God Raises Us Up

In fact, when we take a deeper look at the language used in the Torah, we see that perhaps being willing to question God for a holy purpose is actually the essence of what sets man apart from the rest of creation.

When sharing His plans, the text states that God will go down to Sodom, implying that this conversation is taking place in the upper realms. The three angels continued on their merry way, roaming the heavens, but Abraham “remained standing before the Lord.” In the face of perceived injustice, he would not budge; he stood on high, side by side with God Himself. When he opens his mouth to challenge God for the first time, the verse reads that “Abraham approached” God, implying that his audacity actually raised his stature, bringing Abraham closer to God than he was before. Finally, at the end of their conversation, when all negotiations are said and done, the Torah concludes that God went on his way, and “Abraham returned to his place.” 

Based on the above analysis, it appears that this entire interaction, this struggle between man and God, took place in the highest heights, above the domain of the angels. Once Abraham made his point, he returned to his lowly place in the physical world.  

This story comes to show us that to be in a true relationship with God is to question. In fact, the very essence of our nation, as revealed in the name “Yisrael,” implies eternal struggle. When Abraham’s grandson, Ya’akov, wrestles with an angel and is given a new name, the angel explains:

“וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל:  כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל.”

“Then he said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” (Bereishit 32:28)

The Paradox of Faith & Doubt

This concept encapsulates the apparent tension between faith and doubt. Abraham is the ultimate father of faith. Without a second thought, he heeded God’s commands; he left behind his homeland and family and got circumcised at an old age. But in the next breath, he questions God’s actions. As so many have asked throughout the generations, how can we maintain that God is just, benevolent, and omnipotent when we live in a world of injustice, pain, and suffering? 

If we believe that everything happens for a reason, then our encounters with pain must serve a purpose as well. In an act of seeming cruelty, God allows us to experience indescribable pain without revealing the Master Plan that makes it all okay. The angels, on the other hand, must see the whole picture: they have the luxury to accept the state of the world and move on. But from our human perspective, as a unique blend of dirt and spirit, nothing makes sense.

Even though God was essentially “right” at the end of our story, so was Abraham. If we saw the full picture, we may concede, accepting evil in the world and the suffering of humanity. God invites us to challenge Him, not because He is wrong, but because struggling with the Divine for the sake of justice transforms us into the highest version of ourselves, propelling us to become true partners in the creation of a better world. 

Good Shabbos,

Rav Shlomo

About the Author
Born in New Jersey, while growing up between Los Angeles and Ra'anana. I released a number of albums, and have been blessed to sing some of my melodies throughout the world. Received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Chaim Brovender and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin at Yeshivat Hamivtar. We live in Efrat, with our precious son and four daughters. Spiritual leader of Beit Knesset Shirat David, in Efrat, where I get to pray and learn with some of my best friends. Founder of the Shlomo Katz project.
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