Although Moses is often considered our consummate leader, I would argue that Abraham had the greater impact on the world. He changed the course of human history in last week’s Torah portion, when he became the first human being to understand God’s eternal and undivided nature. And this week, he provides us with a blueprint for our own relationships with God through three distinct examples … one inspirational, one confusing and one dubious.
The portion opens with the mesmerizing tale of Sodom and Gomorrah — names that have become synonymous with wickedness — and God informs Abraham about the intention to destroy these cities. Rather than acknowledging God’s plan, or cowering in fear of such ultimate power, Abraham decides to stand toe-to-toe with God (as it were) and demand that God do better (Genesis 18:16-33). Instead of sweeping away innocent along with evil, Abraham insists that God should act righteously — protecting the good is just as important as terminating the bad.
Parshat Vayera: Genesis 18:1-22:24; II Kings 4:1-37
Abraham gives us permission to argue with God, to get upset with God … to view ourselves as partners in constructive dialogue with God. He opens a theological door, and Jewish tradition has always wanted us to walk through it by accepting responsibility for the world around us. We cannot simply blame God for the problems we may see; it is up to us to fix them and demand better.
Unfortunately, after this act of remarkable courage, Abraham’s next example for us is a puzzling one. Like he had done earlier (Genesis 12), Abraham tells a foreign king that Sarah is his sister, not his wife — which almost leads to an unfortunate impropriety. Commentators have long struggled with Abraham’s actions, and to this day, it is not clear whether he acted basely (sacrificing Sarah, or at least her honor) or nobly (trying to protect them both from danger).
Either way, it seems to me that Abraham here reflects the very real struggles that we often face in life. One of the reasons our Torah is so powerful as a sacred text is that it mirrors the nuance and complexity of real life. In this case, perhaps Abraham serves as exemplar of some decisions being morally ambiguous … and yet, we need to make those decisions and then live with the consequences.
The parshah ends with one of the most famous narratives in Jewish literature. Every time I read about Abraham’s binding of Isaac so that he can sacrifice him on a mountaintop, as God commands, I am bereft. Such sadness, such misery, such terrifying images. Although tradition has suggested that this was only a trial to confirm Abraham’s faith, many people don’t find that response comforting. Willingness to sacrifice a child is not ambiguous at all; it is simply malevolent. What can we learn from this tale of woe?
Remember, Torah was never meant to be read as a historical document or as an infallible blueprint for our own actions. From ancient days, our rabbis have always read Torah as a book of wisdom, meant to inspire us to wrestle with its mysteries and derive our own human conclusions. The Akeida stands as a decisive reminder that even the best people can fall prey to bad ideas and wicked suggestions. None of us is merely good or bad — our impact on the world is measured by the decisions, large and small, that we make every day.
May we learn from the full range of Abraham’s example and be worthy of God’s enduring trust in us.
Mark Miller is senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township.