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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Va'yera 5765
Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
October 30, 2004     15 Heshvan 5765

This week's commentary was written by Kristina Olson, Rabbinical School Student

In this week's parasha, Va'yera, we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God, seeing the overwhelming corruption of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, informs Abraham that he is going to destroy the cities, wiping their wickedness from the earth. Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom on account of the few righteous people that remain there. God agrees, and Abraham barters God down from fifty righteous people to ten, on account of which God will not destroy Sodom. A midrash adds a prologue to this bartering dialogue that displays Abraham's frustration with God's apparent lack of mercy. Rabbi Aha states that Abraham, feeling deceived, says the following to God:

You bound yourself by an oath not to bring a flood upon the world. Are you now going to act deceitfully against the clear intent of the oath? True enough, you are not going to bring a flood of water, but you are going to bring a flood of fire.

Abraham feels betrayed, and he has the chutzpah to ask God where his morals have gone! Rabbi Levi adds that Abraham continues, saying:

Will not the judge of all the earth do justly? If you want to have a world, there can be no justice, and if justice is what you want, there can be no world. You are holding the rope at both ends. You want a world and you want justice. If you don't give in a bit, the world can never stand.

I find this image of God playing tug-of-war with himself intriguing, even slightly amusing. But when I read this, I asked myself what exactly is in tension here. Is it free will vs. divine control? Good vs. evil? Utopia vs. reality? I think in this case, one of God's hands pulls towards vengeance, and the other pulls towards mercy. Here, the hand of vengeance proves stronger. Lot and his family don't fulfill the minimum quota of righteous people needed for God to pull hardest on the mercy end of the rope. Lot escapes, and God pours fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah.

Now, let's rewind briefly for a moment back to the beginning of the parasha. There, we read that as Abraham sits recovering from circumcision, three angels approach him. Bava Metzia 86b informs us that one is Michael, who comes to tell Sarah of her upcoming pregnancy, one is Raphael, who comes to heal Abraham from his circumcision, and the last is Gabriel, who is on his way to help destroy Sodom. After their visit, Rashi tells us that Michael leaves, and Raphael and Gabriel go on together towards Sodom. Having healed Abraham, Raphael's new job is to save Lot.

Now fast-forwarding again to the scene following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, I imagine God, unable to bear the pain of the rope burn caused by vengeance pulling against mercy any longer, deciding to delegate this task. I picture God handing the vengeance end to Gabriel, having just aided in the destruction of Sodom, and the end of mercy to Raphael, having just healed Abraham and saved Lot.

In our world today, Gabriel and Raphael continue to pull that rope of justice in either direction, always in tension. The midrash above tells us that divine justice and human society cannot co-exist. I think the message we can take from this is that we as humans must take justice into our own hands, wrestling with balance of our desire for retribution, and the need for mercy. Eleanor Roosevelt once asked, "When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?" When we gaze upon the Sodoms in our world, in our country, in our city, and in our hearts, we must proceed with empathy, as it is empathy that lies at the heart of social justice and tikkun olam. We must join Raphael's team in the game of social justice tug-of-war, and when we win, we can twist the meaning of Raphael's name slightly and declare: "We have healed for God."

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.