Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Va-Yera 5762
Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
November 3, 2001 17 Heshvan 5762
Rabbi Lewis Warshauer, JTS rabbinic fellow.
The five books that form the most sacred writings of the Jews are called by various names in various languages. Only the Hebrew name conveys exactly the content and not just the structure of these books. "Torah" means teaching. One of the aspects of the Torah that has made it so compelling for so many people over so long a time is that it not only is a teaching but teaches about teaching. The Torah, in its own terms, is both God's teaching for human beings and the handbook for people to teach each other.
The best example of Torah as a document that requires education is the line from the Shema : "These words which I command you this day. you shall impress them upon your children and speak of them. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)." One does not have to wait until the book of Deuteronomy, however, to realize the importance of education. In this week's parashah , in the Book of Genesis, God says of Abraham: " I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right ( la'asot tzedakah u-mishpat (Genesis 18:18-19)".
Abraham's task was to provide instruction in justice and righteousness; these are subjects, presumably, that he has learned from God. Abraham shows he has learned the lesson well by holding the teacher responsible for applying His own teachings. When Abraham learns that God intends to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he uses God's own words to confront God: "Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?. Far be it from you to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent ( tzadik ) as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty are alike. shall the judge of all the earth not do justice ( mishpat ) (Genesis 18:23, 25)?"
The Biblical commentator known as Kli Yakar (Ephraim ben Aaron of Lunshits, 1550-1619) speculates on the reasoning that underlay Abraham's rebuke to God. Kli Yakar , citing the verse in which God expresses an intent to "go down" to see the outcry coming from Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:21), understands a further meaning in Abraham's response to God. Abraham reasoned that if God had intended to act against the wicked cities through messengers of destruction, it would follow that the wicked and righteous would both be destroyed. These messengers (or angels), once loosed on the world, cannot distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. Yet God intended to destroy the cities alone, without agents, and surely God can make these distinctions and not punish the righteous together with the wicked.
The Torah records no angry response from God over Abraham's rebuke. On the contrary, the Teacher accepts His own teaching. Later in this parashah , it is explicitly stated that God tested Abraham by commanding him to offer up his son Isaac. Although the Sodom and Gomorrah episode is not listed as a test, there is every indication that it was. God said, in effect, to Abraham: "I charge you with teaching justice. It is difficult enough to teach justice to other people. Can you rise to an even higher level of teaching by instructing -- Me?" God accepted Abraham's rebuke because that rebuke was not a lack of faith in God but rather a proof of faith. Abraham did not presume upon God; on the contrary, he showed ultimate obedience. The best way for a student to keep faith with a teacher is to hold the teacher to the teacher's teaching.