The rabbinic tradition holds Avraham up as the ultimate “Ish Emunah – man of faith”, but what is it about him which accounts for this attribution? Two episodes in his life are frequently cited as evidence of this characterization, both of which are found in this week’s parasha. The story of the Akedat Yitzhak – the binding of Yitzhak, Avraham’s beloved son, where Avraham willingly cedes to God’s command to offer up his son as a sacrifice, is often recounted as the ultimate act of faith in God. Earlier in the parasha, though, we find a very different model of piety, one in which faith is not measured in obedience, but rather, in the willingness to challenge God, upon seeing the potential for injustice.
At the outset of the parashah, Avraham is visited by divine messengers who come to inform him of the future birth of a son. Avraham accompanies them as they depart, whereupon God debates whether to inform Avraham of his intention to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah:
And the men arose from there and looked out over Sodom, Avraham walking along with them to see them off. And the Lord had thought: ‘Shall I conceal form Avraham what I am about to do? For Avraham will surely be a great and mighty nation, and all of the nations of the earth will be blessed through him… (Genesis 18:16-20)
It was no small thing for God to confide in Avraham and though the Torah indicates that God decided in his favor because he had great promise, for at least one voice among the sages, this was insufficient:
Said Rabbi Levi: Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, reveal [His decision concerning Sodom and Gomorrah] to Avraham? [He did so] since Avraham had previously reflected regarding the generation of the flood, saying: It is impossible that there were not twenty righteous men or perhaps or, at least, ten righteous men for in whose merit the Holy One, blessed be He, [might have saved the generation]. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He said: I will reveal [the entire matter] to him so that he will not contend with me (saying): “Perhaps there are righteous men even in Sodom.” You know that it was so, for no sooner did He finish saying: “Shall I conceal from Avraham?” When He (God) told him all this, how did he respond? Avraham drew near and said: ‘Will You sweep away the righteous with the wicked? (Genesis 18:23) (Tanhuma Vayera 5)
The sages frequently search out plot additions to exemplify Avraham’s outstanding character traits in order to justify why God selected him. In this story, God chose Avraham because of Avraham’s great sense of justice and right. God desired a disciple who would challenge Him when he thought an injustice was being carried out. This is what made Avraham exemplary.
The Torah, then, presents us with two disparate models of faith, one, where carrying out God’s will unquestioning is seen as the idea, while in the other, it is religiously heroic to challenge God when necessary. Our challenge is to know when each is appropriate. Who says that religion or life offer us easy answers? Certainly not the Jewish tradition.