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Sedom

Rav Ezra Bick
21.09.2014

 

     After the angels leave Avraham, God tells him about His plans for Sedom, the city of evil. We are going to concentrate today on Avraham's reaction to this bit of news, but first we should take note of this truly unique occurrence. God informs Avraham of His plans for no reason that is relevant to Avraham himself. This is a concrete expression of the change in the relationship of God and Avraham discussed in the previous shiur - God appears to Avraham as a companion, as a "ben-brit," as a fellow bound in community, and therefore informs him of what He, God, is planning for the world. This is, in fact, more or less stated explicitly in the Torah:

 

And God said: Shall I hide from Avraham that which I am to do? For Avraham shall 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 charge his children and his household after him, to keep the way of HaShem to do righteousness and justice; that HaShem shall bring upon Avraham that which He has spoken about him. (18,17-19).

 

But now to Avraham's reaction.

 

A.

 

"And Avraham APPROACHED (vayigash) and said…."

R. Yehuda, R. Nechemia, and Rabbanan:

R. Yehuda said: APPROACHED to battle, (as is written), "Yoav and the people that were with him approached before Aram to battle" (Chron. 1,19).

R. Nechemia said: APPROACHED to conciliation, as is written, "The Judeans APPROACHED unto Yehoshua (Josh. 14,6).

Rabbanan said: APPROACHED to prayer, as is written, "And at the time of the evening offering, Eliyahu the prophet APPROACHED and said: HaShem, God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, let this day it be known …." (I Kings 18).

R. Eliezer reconciled (the opinions): Either I come to war, or to reconciliation I come, or to prayer I come.

 

     Avraham is about to approach God in order to dissuade Him from destroying Sedom. The three opinions in the midrash represent three different "approaches." Battle means argumentation, fierce attack, which although without weapons that can possibly overcome the power of God, nonetheless indicate an aggressive attitude, and, most importantly, an adversarial relationship. Avraham is, in at least some sense, attempting to FORCE God to reverse course. He sees the will of God as something to be overcome. This implies that in the opinion of the Sages, this is possible - Man can overcome the will of God.

 

     The second opinion takes a more rational approach. Conciliation ("pius") here means convincing, presenting arguments that are logically compelling and persuasive. (The proof-text from Yehoshua clearly indicates this.) This implies that Man can argue with God and persuade Him, that there exists a certain measure of rational communality between Man and God, and that rationality is, in fact, binding on God. Hence the proper argument will be compelling.

 

     The third opinion abandons any approach based on compulsion, even the rational type. Avraham approaches to pray, to beseech.  He does not attempt to force God's hand, or to appeal to His rationality, but rather to His mercy. Although such an approach should not surprise anyone who knows the central place prayer has in daily Judaism, it is nonetheless as theologically novel and controversial as the previous approaches. If God has decided on a course of action, which is obviously the proper and correct one in His eyes, what can prayer do? The philosophic problem of the efficacy of prayer is ancient, and the Sages attribute to Avraham, the first Jew, one of the first prayers in the transforming sense, a prayer to annul a Divine decree.

 

     Now, clearly these represent very different approaches how to approach God in a situation where we want something that appears to be at variance with God's will. One can attack, one can argue, or one can plead. Normally, I think, we would say that these approaches characterize three different religious personalities. There are many midrashim that present multiple opinions of this nature on different topics, and we have in fact analyzed some in the past. This case is unusual in the presentation of a fourth opinion which combines all three of the previous ones - "all of the above" - thereby stating explicitly that there is no contradiction in adopting all three approaches at once. What is more, by attributing the tri-headed approach to Avraham, the forefather, the midrash is explicitly recommending not only all three approaches to his descendants, but all three at once.

 

     A central tenet of the midrashic commentary to the lives of the forefathers is to see them each as exemplifying different character traits and spiritual principles. The most famous example, to mention just one simple schema, is that which identifies Avraham with "chesed," Yitzchak with "gevura," and Yaacov with "emet" or "tiferet." Since there are three fathers, this type of schema recommends all three traits to all their descendants, but with the understanding that there is an underlying tension between them, and hence it was necessary, in order to fully and truly exemplify each, to identify each one exclusively with a different personality. While we all strive for the chesed of Avraham, the gevura of Yitzchak, and the emet of Yaacov, every personality will be dominated by one of the traits. In the case of our midrash, at least according to the concluding opinion of R. Eliezer, this pattern is broken, and all three different approaches are attributed to Avraham simultaneously, indicating that there is no need for tension between them since there is no real contradiction between them. One can simultaneously plead, argue and strive with God - in fact, one SHOULD simultaneously plead, argue and strive with God - and the reason is that all three are based on a single relationship with God, who is King by virtue of His goodness and wisdom, so that His majesty and power are themselves based on His being open to logical persuasion and moral appeal.

 

     I leave it to you to try and fully unify and assimilate the three approaches, which is undoubtedly not as easy as my single paragraph above would indicate. PSYCHOLOGICALLY, it is definitely not simple to be in the three states of mind parallel to the three approaches at the same time, but metaphysically and spiritually, this midrash states that there is no contradiction; on the contrary, on the deeper level, there is an underlying unity.

 

B.

 

     To return to the context, the midrash is describing how Avraham plans to change the Divine decree concerning the imminent destruction of Sedom. This parsha is central to understanding the role of Avraham Avinu. In a midrash we first looked at last year, the Sages refer to this episode as the feature which distinguished Avraham and is responsible for his being chosen for God's plan in creating Am Yisrael.

 

R. Azaria in the name of R. Acha began: "You loved righteousness and hated evil; THEREFORE God your God has anointed you with oil of joy above all your fellows" (Psalms 45,8).  R. Azaria explicated this verse in relation to Avraham.  When Avraham our father stood to plead for mercy for Sodom, what is written? – "Far be it from you to do this thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked" (Bereishit 18).

God said to Avraham: You have loved justice and hated evil… above all your fellows. 

Who are "your fellows?" From Noach until you have passed ten generations; but I spoke with none of them except for you.  (BR 39,6).

 

     Whatever the particular approach Avraham takes, the boldness and commitment to ideals inherent in the very idea of challenging God's plan is what elevates Avraham above all men. That particular midrash takes the conciliation, i.e. argument, approach.

 

R. Acha said: (Avraham argued) You have sworn that You will not bring a flood on the world, so why are you being deceptive with Your oath? A flood of water You will not bring but a flood of fire You will bring?!? If so, You have not fulfilled Your oath!

R. Levi said: "Shall the judge of all the earth not perform justice?" (ibid).  If you desire the existence of the world then there cannot be judgement, but if you desire judgement, then there can be no world.  How can You grasp the rope from both ends?!? You want both a world and judgement.  Pick one of them; but if You do not relent a little, the world cannot endure.

 

     The first of these arguments, that suggested by R. Acha, is a moral one. God has promised not to bring destruction on the earth and legalistic hairsplitting between fire and water is morally unacceptable. The second is argument, the one suggested by R. Levi, is practical and teleological - if God has, for whatever reason, decided to have a world populated by people of blood and flesh, he MUST temper the principle of justice with mercy. A real world and pure justice are mutually contradictory. What is noteworthy in both cases is the strength and decisiveness of Avraham's tone - You MUST NOT and CAN NOT  do that which You are planning. This is the expression of the verse on which this midrash is based - "You loved righteousness and hated evil" (Tehillim 45,8). Avraham is motivated by passion, which drives him to attempt to force, in one way or another, God's hand. Hence, the conclusion of the same verse - "THEREFORE God your God has anointed you with oil of joy above all your fellows."

 

C.

 

Avraham says to God: "Far be it ("chalila") from You to do this thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked."

 

"Chalila lach" - R. Yudan said: "Chalila lach" (means) "it is foreign to You."

R. Acha said: It is written "chalila" two times. (The second means) it is a desecration ("chillul") of the Name of heaven.

 

     Pretty strong words, but that is not my point now. What is the meaning of the statement, "It is foreign to You." In order to make such a statement, Avraham has to presume to know what is "native", i.e., inherent, to God, and what is foreign. There are religious philosophies that would deny that this is possible. No trait of character can be said, at least not by us, to be proper to God, and others foreign. What do we know about God, and how can we presume to challenge Him by reference to His own proper nature? Yet that is precisely what Avraham is doing.

 

     This should not be surprising in view of the Divine introduction to Avraham's appearance on this scene, which I quoted at the beginning of the shiur. " For I know him, that he will charge his children and his household after him, to keep THE WAY OF HASHEM TO DO RIGHTEOUSNESS AND JUSTICE." Avraham is a master of the "way of HaShem," and his mastery and knowledge of that way, the way of righteousness and justice, is at the root of why God has disclosed to him the plan for Sedom. It is that knowledge which allows Avraham to tell God that a certain plan of action is, in his opinion, "foreign" to God's true nature. (The claim that a certain action is "foreign" to God appears in a midrash concerning the akeida, the binding of Yitzchak, and there it is placed in the mouths of the angels (56,5). )

 

     The second opinion, that Avraham is raising the claim of "chillul HaShem," the desecration of God's name, is also, I think, to be understood as meaning that the destruction of Sedom is antithetical to God's name and nature. It does also add the element that irrespective of what God might decide to do, He should take into account the effect that this will have on the people of the world. But I do not believe that Avraham is arguing merely that this is a case of bad public relations - in which case a good PR firm could package the event in a more positive manner. It is bad public relations because it is genuinely immoral and unjust, and therefore it is a desecration of God's name, which stands for justice and righteousness. God's "name" means His presence in the world and His immanence" in the hearts and beliefs of His creatures, so that apparent arbitrary conduct genuinely harms God's presence. The point of this argument is equivalent to the "If you desire the existence of the world then there cannot be judgement, but if you desire judgement, then there can be no world" argument above - God's plan for the world requires that He demonstrate morality, justice and righteousness to the world, or else the purpose of creation will fail.

 

     Is this approach of Avraham overly bold, bordering on chutzpa and impudence? The midrash points out that the border between "love of righteousness and justice" and insolence is very fine.

 

R. Levi said: Two people said THE SAME THING, Avraham and Iyov (Job).

Avraham said: Far be it from You to do this thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked.

Iyov said: It is one; therefore I say, He wipes out the pure and the wicked.

Avraham was rewarded, and Iyov was punished.

Avraham spoke with ripeness, but Iyov spoke unripe.

 

     Your mission - what is the difference between Iyov and Avraham, as symbolized by the ripeness of the fruit? Be careful though - the midrash explicitly states that they both said THE SAME THING.

 

     Since this shiur is a biweekly, if I receive answers to the questions raised in this week's shiur during the next few days, I will present a short discussion of the answers and comments next week. Please write and share your thoughts with me. Otherwise, the next shiur will be in two weeks.

 

     One last midrash, for your perusal and thought.

 

"Will the judge of ALL THE WORLD not perform justice."

R. Yehuda b. R. Simon said: Thus did Avraham say: A human king's decree is sent for ratification from the duke to the governor, and from the governor to the procurator. But You, because there is no one who can ratify your decisions, shall You not do justice?

R. Yehuda b. R. Simon said: When You wished to judge Your world, you placed it in the hands of two, Remus and Romulus, so that if one wished to do something, the second would prevent him. But You, because there is no one to prevent you, shall You not do justice?

 

Question: What is the point of this argument?

 

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