When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text.
Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation. – Joseph Smith
This week’s Torah portion contains two important narratives: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which takes up chapters 18 and 19, and the binding of Isaac (22:1–19).
The portion opens with God telling Abraham that God intends to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (18:17–21). This is introduced by a rare glimpse into God’s mind. In an aside worthy of Shakespeare, God muses (18:17–19), “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Because Abraham is certainly going to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves through him; and I know him intimately, that he will command his children and his household after him so that they shall observe and keep God’s ways, doing righteousness and justice, so that God should bring to Abraham that which God said regarding him.”
There ensues a set piece in which Abraham negotiates with God to try to save the cities, confronting God by saying (18:23–25), “Would You stamp out the righteous together with the wicked?… It’s sacrilege on Your part to do such a thing!… Is it possible that the Judge of all the earth should not act justly?”
In the Noah story, we were told (6:6–7), “And God regretted having made humans upon the earth, and God was sad at heart, and God said, ‘I will erase the humans I have created from off the face of the earth.’” We humans naturally think in terms of reward and punishment, so of course we read the Flood as a massive instance of collective punishment. “Why is this happening to me?” is the most natural response to tragedy, to pain. But as they say: pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice. The Torah suggests that suffering is a shortcoming of perception; it is the all too human propensity for seeing everything that happens from our own perspective. From the Torah’s perspective, it is more accurate to say that God chooses to destroy the world – or humans, or Sodom – because things are not going according to plan.
Twice over now, the Torah has shown us God the Destroyer. And we shall see that aspect forced upon Abraham before this section comes to a close. It is only later that we shall also see God’s own grief over the destruction of God’s creations.
We saw in last week’s reading that the Torah obliges us to look out for one another. Now Abraham introduces a personal, moral value distinction. God says (18:20–21), “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has grown great, and their sin has been very grave; I will go down and see for Myself, and if their behavior is as terrible as the outcry that I have heard, then I will put an end to them; and if not, then I will know.” God sees the city as a single entity – a meaningful lesson. We are all individually responsible for the society in which we live. As moral actors, we either contribute to the world, or we unjustly exploit it. But as nothing we do is morally neutral, we can’t merely stand aside. Not ever. Neither on the personal level nor on the societal level. Those who sport the bumper sticker, “Don’t blame me – I voted for the other guy,” refuse to accept the consequences and obligations of citizenship. Their refusal is a refutation of the values of a free society.
Abraham makes the distinction between the private and the public, between the individual and the collective. This is a very human perspective, and one God has yet to internalize. God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because they are wicked; Abraham counters that perhaps not each individual within the cities is wicked. Remember that this was God’s own argument in favor of creating humans. God says, “Let us make man” (1:26), inviting a dialogue with the angels. The angels cite all the terrible things humans will do. God argues that they will not all be wicked, all the time. But now the divine tables are turned, and Abraham uses God’s own argument against God.
Buried in the text so far are hints that, even while dispensing divine justice, God is not immune to human suffering. God has the power to create, but – and this is so important – it doesn’t mean God doesn’t suffer when things don’t work out. It is a small thing for God to create something out of nothing, yet it is a tragedy of eternal, cosmic proportions for God to have to destroy God’s own creation. And if we pray – especially during moments of pain, tragedy, or suffering – what we are actually doing is trying to connect to God’s compassion, to God’s own deep suffering.
“You complain about Me all day,” says God. “Does no one think about how I feel?” This is the God who regretted creating humanity, who in profound sadness chose to destroy all living beings. Not for the last time, God gives in to despair.
And so God requires Abraham to share in this burden.
The binding of Isaac
The binding of Isaac (22:1–19) is a difficult passage. It has elicited a wealth of commentary, ranging from the most literal reading of Abraham’s faith being put to the ultimate test, to the wide-ranging philosophical musings of Kierkegaard in his classic Fear and Trembling, to a range of counter-interpretations that condemn Abraham for failing to put his son’s life above the irrational demand of an arbitrary and hostile God. Many readers say that in passing God’s test, Abraham also fails one of humanity’s fundamental requirements. But how to combine and reconcile his duty to his son – which is also a duty to keep alive God’s promise of a future – with his duty of obedience to God? The Torah reminds us over and over that life so often doesn’t seem to make sense.
“And it was after these things that God tested Abraham” (22:1) introduces the binding of Isaac. Although Isaac is the one who is nearly slaughtered, rabbinic tradition sees this unambiguously as Abraham’s test. In the context of the narrative, it is clear that God is testing Abraham to determine whether, after all they have been through together, Abraham is truly fit to be a full partner with God.
We opened our discussion of Genesis with the rabbinic interpretation of “image of God”: Like God, we have free choice, we have a moral sense, and we are creators who work to change and control our environment. Perhaps the rabbis hesitated to mention one of God’s most important attributes – and one in which we also resemble our Creator: God as the Destroyer. Throughout the Torah, being close to God is fraught with danger, and many a righteous person perishes through accidentally coming too close. God is unpredictable. In the Noah chapters, God destroys the world because of wickedness. With regard to Sodom, it seems God is too impatient to save a city in order to preserve the righteous ones who might dwell there.
As with our gut reaction to the expulsion from Eden – which we saw was inaccurate – we read the Flood as punishment. But the wholesale destruction of all life doesn’t fit with our concept of punishment to correct behavior or to serve as a warning. Neither does the blotting out of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The power of the righteous was not sufficient to prevent the wickedness of the generation of the Flood, to prevent the evils perpetrated in Sodom and Gomorrah. If the righteous are not effective, what use are they? If they are not strong enough to change society, if they can’t do the job that God requires of them, why should they not perish along with the wicked? The righteous of the generation, both of the Flood and of Sodom and Gomorrah, are too few and too feeble. They are not up to the task of being God’s partners. It’s a wake-up call.
God tells Abraham: You wanted to prevent Me from destroying the cities of the plain. Do you not believe that I wanted nothing more than not to destroy them? Let’s see how you fare with this, Abraham. You are the great champion of the good; how will you react when forced to confront your own darker side – your propensity for evil? I command you to kill your son. You will have to face this test but once, while I must face it every hour of every day. “You rushed to defend the wicked city of Sodom,” God seems to be saying. “Now, Abraham, let’s see how you react when the sandal is on the other foot.”
The world is full of evil, and it is so easy to fall into utter despair. So easy, and so tempting. And truly, despair is the greatest sin of all. Despair comes to us in a gentle guise, as a reasonable way out. “Give up on humanity,” despair whispers in our ear. “After all, God has given up on you more than once.” And with all that God must witness in the course of each day, why wouldn’t God despair of humans?
Abraham passes the test, for he is willing to carry out God’s command and slay his son. Abraham’s greatness is that, unlike God, he refuses to despair. Whatever the outcome of his test – whether Isaac dies or lives – Abraham has made his covenant with God, and he remains true to it. Abraham remains truer to his faith in God than God does to God’s faith in us. Abraham has no way of knowing that God will prevent him from killing Isaac, no more than the Israelites know they will not drown in the Sea of Reeds; no more than Moses knows that God will call him back up the mountain after the episode of the Golden Calf. Faith can only ever be in the moment. More important, faith is about us, not about God. Not, “Why did God…” “Why does God…” “I hope God will…”. No. Faith means that I struggle at each moment to connect to God. And when God seems to be absent the most, that connection becomes more important than ever. Faith means that I take upon myself the full responsibility for the relationship, whether God is there or not.
If God will not step in to put right what is wrong, when God appears to have wandered off and forgotten all about us, the only thing that holds the world together is the steadfastness of those who continue to act as though God were right here, right now, immanent. And if God will not always give us the outcome we ask for, and if, tragically, God will not always prevent the misfortunes we fear, then why do we pray? I often do not know. But one thing I do know is that if ever we would cease to pray, then the world would be truly, truly lost.
May we be equal to our every trial. The world depends on it.
Yours for a better world.