“Until God Consulted With Avraham”

  • Rav Shimon Klein

Introduction

 

In our parasha, God shares with Avraham His intention to judge Sedom and Amora (chapter 18). Avraham responds to God’s sharing of His plan: “Avraham drew near and he said, ‘Will You then destroy the righteous together with the wicked?’” He proposes, “Perhaps there are fifty righteous men within the city; will You still destroy and not spare the place…?” And then he argues:

 

“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, and that the righteous shall be like the wicked. Far be it from You; shall the Judge of all the earth not do right?”

 

God acquiesces to Avraham’s hypothetical request, but Avraham does not stop there:

 

“Perhaps there shall be lacking of the fifty righteous [just] five – will You destroy the entire city for lack of five?”… “Perhaps there shall be forty…”… “Perhaps ten…?”

 

What is going on here? Does Avraham believe that he has a better understanding than God has of the concept of justice?

 

In this passage, Avraham adopts a dual position. He speaks with determination:

 

“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, and that the righteous shall be like the wicked. Far be it from You; shall the Judge of all the earth not do right?”

 

At the same time, he voices humility:

 

“Behold now, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, although I am dust and ashes.”

 

What is the meaning of this vacillating between opposite poles?

 

A third question that will occupy us here concerns God’s aim in sharing His plans with Avraham. We might view this as a sort of early warning, honoring Avraham by giving him notification in advance of the event. If this is so, then the position that Avraham adopts is problematic, since his entreaties go far beyond the apparent limits of his mandate.

 

In this shiur, we will pay close attention to God’s words to Avraham in an attempt to answer these questions.

 

“Shall I conceal from Avraham?”

 

God said, “[Because] the cry of Sedom and Amora is great, and [because] their sin is very grievous, I will go down now and see whether they have done according to the cry of it, which has come to me, [for] destruction. And if not, I will know.” (Bereishit 18:20)

 

These are the words that are uttered to Avraham and to which he responds. They are introduced by a description of the reality: “[Because] the cry of Sedom and Amora is great, and [because] their sin is very grievous...” There is much suffering in these cities, and terrible sins. Seemingly, God’s words should conclude with the punishment that He intends to mete out. But there is a surprise: instead of announcing their punishment, God declares His intention to go down and examine the situation: “I will go down now and see whether they have done according to the cry of it.” Is the cry that has come before Me a true reflection of reality? If so, their punishment will be “destruction” – they will be doomed to annihilation. But this is not the only possibility. “If not” – if the situation is not as their cry would suggest, if there is a discrepancy between the cry emanating and their actual sins – “I will know.”

 

This is a most astonishing statement, suggesting, as it were, “Right now, I do not know what the actual situation is; therefore, I plan to go down to the city and take a closer look.” More surprising still is the continuation: if the findings of the investigation are not as grave as the reports would suggest, then “I will know” – in the future. It is as if God is saying, “I do not yet know what I will do in that situation, but at that point in the future, I will know.”

 

At the outset, we asked what it is that God expects of Avraham. It is difficult to read God’s statement without a sense of God making room for Avraham in the Divine deliberation. God adopts a provisional or questioning stance, asking Avraham, as it were, “What do you think?” The reality has not yet been properly evaluated, the moral criteria themselves are not yet clear, and in this sense, Avraham is presented with a dilemma, concerning which he is invited to express his view. Thus, God’s communication with Avraham comes across as an invitation. What is the issue that is being deliberated, and what is expected of Avraham?

 

God’s opening words are, “The cry of Sedom and Amora…” The issue at stake is not the evil itself, but rather the suffering that it causes, the affliction of those who cry out as a result of it. Only in the next circle of concern does the sin itself appear as a topic. This fact provides the context for Avraham’s response. To demonstrate this, let us suppose that Avraham would succeed somehow in bringing relief for the pain of those crying out. Seemingly, the threatened annihilation as punishment would then be averted. The issue here is not the proper administering of Divine justice, but rather the cry of the weak at the hands of the wicked, for which God acts here as a mouthpiece.[1]

 

The second step is that God reveals His plan: “I will go down now and see whether they have done according to the cry of it that has come to Me, [for] destruction.” God intends to go down and observe the city from up close. Here, too, the issue at hand is whether the situation is “according to the cry of it,” rather than justice in and of itself. It is the cry of the downtrodden that sets the wheels of justice in motion; it is this suffering that demands God’s response. Hence, it is the suffering that must be examined.

 

What is God’s intention in describing His descent to see the city? How does He plan to do this? How will the cry of the city be evaluated? By which yardstick will its state be measured? At this point, there are no answers to these questions, and it would seem that the lack of clarity here joins with the image of God “making room” for Avraham – the “indefinite” picture that allows Avraham not only to respond to God’s actions and initiative, but also to initiate and create in his own right. Thus, God presents a description that is open to some degree, inviting Avraham to join in the process.[2]

 

What direction does Avraham adopt in his response? What does he choose to make of God’s words to him?

 

“And Avraham drew near”

 

And Avraham drew near and he said, “Will You then destroy the righteous together with the wicked?”

 

Avraham stands tall and responds, as it were, to God’s invitation. As a first step, he questions the basic assumptions: “Will You then destroy the righteous together with the wicked?” God is speaking of the fate of the entire city – “destruction.” He is speaking of the extent of the sins of its inhabitants, with not a word about the righteous people dwelling there, who do not deserve to die. Avraham assumes that such righteous individuals exist, and he asks how it is possible that the righteous and the wicked should share the same fate.

 

But he does not stop at raising a theoretical question as to whether the righteous in the city can rightfully be destroyed along with the wicked majority. He adds, “Perhaps there are fifty righteous men within the city; will You still destroy and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst?” His point of departure accepts and pursues the concept of “the city” as an organic unit, but he takes this concept in a new direction. If the unit of life is the city and there are fifty righteous people within this unit, then perhaps for their sake God will forgive its sins.

 

What is the logic of this protection that the righteous man supposedly extends to the wicked? Seemingly, the logic is set forth in his words, “Perhaps there are fifty righteous men within the city; will You still destroy and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst?” Avraham points to the subject – the city, qua city, as an organic unit – and he points to what goes on within it. A city in which there dwell fifty righteous men is a city that allows such people a place; it contains them. They are part of the city and of its value system. Their presence is a counterweight that balances out the wickedness of the city.

 

Another interpretation of Avraham’s words would speak of these righteous in terms of the future, the possibility that something positive might happen between them and the people of the city. These righteous people might yet have an impact; their goodness might radiate outwards and bring about change.

 

Avraham could stop at this second claim, but he presses on:

 

“Far be it from You do to such a thing, to slay the righteous together with the wicked, and that the righteous shall be like the wicked. Far be it from You; shall the Judge of all the earth not do right?”

 

With these words, he returns to his first argument, “Shall You then destroy the righteous together with the wicked?” upgrading his question to a demand of burning urgency. Why does Avraham backtrack? What has caused him to return to his original argument? Seemingly, the turnaround is an expression of the complexity that he seeks to convey. His first step is to reject the idea of applying a collective punishment on the city when this entails the righteous people in its midst suffering despite the fact that they are innocent. His second argument takes the opposite approach: it emphasizes the weight and quality of the city as a whole, setting aside the particular application of justice in relation to the wicked and seeking to save them under the patronage of the righteous people in their midst. Avraham seems to perceive the obvious question arising from his self-contradictory tactics. If the power of the city as a unit is great enough in relation to its wicked inhabitants to save it, why is its power not also greater than that of the righteous individuals in its midst, such that they may be swept away in the fate that awaits the collective? His response to this paradox is to cry out, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous together with the wicked, and that the righteous shall be like the wicked. Far be it from You; shall the Judge of all the earth not do right?” Avraham is aware of the logical difficulty, but he is determined to hold on to his moral position and not let go. It is unthinkable that a person who is innocent should be punished.

 

But what answer can he give to the opposite argument? Why is it somehow admissible that a person should be saved even though he has committed grave sins? This is not a simple question, and it seems that there is no escaping the double standard that he is proposing. On the one hand, saving the city is justice in relation to the righteous man, who must not be harmed if he has done nothing wrong. On the other hand, benevolence is then extended to the wicked person, and he is saved by virtue of the righteousness of his neighbor.

 

This distinction seems to be reflected in the two very different spiritual movements that Avraham demonstrates: courage and determination on one hand – “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous together with the wicked, and that the righteous shall be like the wicked. Far be it from You; shall the Judge of all the earth not do right?” – and meek humility on the other – “Perhaps there are fifty righteous people within the city; will You still destroy and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst?” We find this even more so as he goes on:

 

“Behold now, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, although I am dust and ashes…” And he said, “Let the Lord not be angry, and let me speak: perhaps there shall be found there thirty”… And he said, “Behold, now, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord: perhaps there shall be found there twenty?” And He said, “I will not destroy it for the sake of the twenty.” And he said, “Let the Lord not be angry, and I will speak yet but this once. Perhaps ten shall be found there?” (18:27-32)[3]

 

Behind the Scenes

 

Let us now go back to the verses preceding the dialogue and focus on what happens behind the scenes, in the words that God says to Himself:

 

And the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Avraham that which I will do – seeing that Avraham will surely become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment, that the Lord may bring upon Avraham that which He has spoken of him.” (18:17-19)

 

God deliberates, as it were: “Shall I hide from Avraham that which I will do?” Is it proper that I hide My plans from him? “Seeing that Avraham will surely become a great and mighty nation” – he has great value in his own right, and his influence is tremendous; “and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” – all of humanity is destined to be blessed through affiliation with him. God then goes on to describe Avraham’s destiny: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment” – I already know him, and I know that he will bequeath the way of justice and judgment to the future generations. God’s consulting with Avraham will therefore be perceived as an act of empowering Avraham, giving him some “apprenticeship” or training, as it were, for his great destiny, and as an expression of God’s view of him as a partner in leading the world: “In order that the Lord may bring upon Avraham that which He has spoken of him.”[4]

 

Midrash Chakhamim

 

The dialogue between God and Avraham was viewed by Chazal as the source for the existence of a significant, important Oral Law. The midrash offers the following teaching on this unit:

 

“And God said, ‘Shall I hide from Avraham…’” (Bereishit 18:17) – Our Rabbi taught us: One who translates for the Torah reader, may he look at the text? Thus our Rabbis taught: The translator may not look at the text, while the reader may not remove his gaze from the text. For the Torah was given only in writing, as it is written, “And I shall write upon the Tablets” (Shemot 34:1). (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 6)

 

The midrash addresses a situation in which the Torah is read in public, in Hebrew, while the congregation’s spoken language is Aramaic. As the reader proceeds verse by verse, an interpreter standing at his side translates into the vernacular. The context of the midrash is a description of the nature of the Written Law as opposed to the nature of the Oral Law. The midrash begins by asking how the Halakha regards a situation in which the interpreter does not suffice with listening to the reader, but also looks at the text himself before he translates. In response, the midrash presents two halakhot. First, “The interpreter may not look at the text.” Second, “the reader may not remove his gaze from the text.” The reader is committed to God’s Torah, the Written Law, as it stands; his gaze must therefore remain fixed on the text as an expression of its Divine essence and origin. The interpreter, in contrast, is a representative of the Oral Law, the law as transmitted by human beings. His role is to ask himself, “What do I understand?” His focus is not on the literal words as they appear, but rather on what they mean, his understanding of those words, the way they resound in his consciousness. The Oral Law is conveyed by the interpreter.

 

In the broader sense, the habitat of the Oral Law is the human mind, the Sages of all generations. The Oral Law gives voice to the thoughts of the Sages as they take in and make sense of the Divine word, coloring it with their understanding. These Sages also assume responsibility for their understanding in setting forth proper conduct and defining Halakha.

 

The midrash goes on:

 

…And thus we find, even when the Holy One, blessed be He, was angry over Sedom, owing to their evil actions, and He sought to overturn the city, he did not seal their verdict until He consulted with Avraham, as it is written, “And the Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Avraham…’”

 

The midrash states that we find an expression of the existence of an Oral Law in our instance, between God and Avraham. God addresses Avraham not with an announcement, but rather in consultation. “The Holy One, blessed be He, did not seal their verdict until He consulted with Avraham.” By consulting with Him, God expresses His attitude towards him – as an element of significant weight in His deliberations. As a source for this concept, the midrash refers us to the verse, “The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Avraham…’” The text continues, “…that which I will do – seeing that Avraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment, that the Lord may bring upon Avraham that which He has spoken of him” (Bereishit 18:17-19). As noted, these verses describe the Divine thoughts that preceded the sharing of the situation with Avraham. God’s thoughts center on Avraham’s unique and special character as someone who will produce, in the future, a “great nation” bring blessing upon humanity, and instruct those who come after him in the ways of justice and judgment. In sharing the situation with him, God empowers him and prepares him for his great destiny and expresses the Divine view of him as a partner in leading the words – a partner in whom God chooses to confide.

 

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 


[1]  The midrash illustrates the distress most graphically: “R. Levi said: [God declares:] Even if I sought to remain silent, the judgment of its quarrel would not allow Me to remain silent. It happened that two girls went down to drink and to fill [their pitchers] with water. One said to the other, “Why do you look ill?” She answered that all her food was gone, and she was on the point of starving to death. Her friend then filled her own pitcher with flour, and the two of them exchanged pitchers. When [the people of the city] saw what she had done, they took her and burned her. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Even if I sought to remain silent, the judgment of this girl would not permit me to do so. This is as it is written, ‘if according to her cry’ (ha-ke-tza’akata. The text does not say, ‘their cry,’ but rather ‘her cry,’ in reference to the judgment of a girl.” (Midrash Rabba, Bereishit 49:6).

[2]  In fact, it is at the conclusion of the dialogue between God and Avraham, after a decisive condition has been agreed upon – the presence of ten righteous men in the city – that the angels set out for Sedom. The angels are emissaries of God, and in this sense, God goes down to Sedom and to Lot, who is living there, to undertake a clarification of the situation. What is the attitude of Sedom towards “the other,” towards the concept of hospitality, towards Lot’s daughters?

[3] The following midrash seems to identify the contradiction between the two positions: “R. Chiya bar Abba said: There is a mixing-up of arguments here. Avraham says, ‘Far being it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked,’ and God answers, ‘[The fate] of the righteous will be like [that of] the wicked.’ He will suspend [the punishment of] the wicked for the sake of the righteous…” According to this midrash, Avraham argues, “Far be it from You to slay the righteous with the wicked” – and the following words are then attributed, as it were, to God, Who suspends the punishment of the wicked by virtue of the righteous, thereby sparing them. The wicked have no power to bring harm upon the righteous, but the righteous have the power to bring good upon the wicked.

[4]  As an aside here, we might pose a question concerning the fact that despite all of this, Sedom is ultimately destroyed. Sedom is destroyed because ten righteous people could not be found in it. At the same time, Avraham’s position is accepted. Avraham had mentioned the righteous people dwelling in the city as an element that might change the reality within it. The opportunity was indeed extended, and it was this that was the focus of the test. The angels arrive, and the encounter with them is a test of the tolerance of the inhabitants of the city in terms of their hospitality and their acceptance of the other. In fact, what happens is the worst possible scene: the people of Sedom reject the visitors in the most brutal fashion, and thus their verdict is sealed as a society that is incapable of change.

Sedom is destroyed, but the spiritual position adopted by Avraham endures for all time – the path of assuming responsibility in prayer for the city, as well as assuming responsibility to ensure that ten people will be found in such places, in order to “uplift” the city and to remain committed to “the way of God to perform justice and judgment.”