Drash on Parashat Vayeira 2021

Drash on Parashat Vayeira         

Rabbi Gary J Robuck
Consulting Rabbi, Progressive Congregation of the ACT Jewish Community
Consulting Rabbi, Beit Or v’Shalom (Brisbane)
Founder of Gesher Educational Services


When off to the grocer, I often become overwhelmed by the abundance of choices available. The same is true when I scan the contents of this week’s sidra Vayeira, one of the Torah’s lengthiest and most eventful portions. Like the fruits and vegetables aisle at your local greengrocer, Vayeira provides something for everyone.  

Abraham, while sitting at the entrance of his tent, encounters three “men” standing before him. Swiftly, he and Sarah spring into action, providing food and drink, and water for bathing their feet. Soon after, the elderly couple is told to expect a child in the year to come, an announcement that elicits spontaneous laughter from Sarah.  

The portion introduces the reader to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah's depravity and destruction, Abraham’s defence of its citizenry, Lot’s escape, his wife’s "salty" final act,  Abraham’s odd encounter with Avimelech, the king of Gerar, the birth of Isaac, the story of Hagar’s exile and finally, the climactic event in Abraham’s life: his supreme test of faith, the command to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22:1 and ff). 

While there are many themes and ideas that warrant further examination, this year I found myself drawn to the exchange between God and Abraham, in which our Patriarch responds passionately to God’s declaration that soon Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed (translation from Sefaria):   

Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?

What if there should be 50 innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent 50 who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

And the Eternal answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom 50 innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: What if the 50 innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find 45 there.”

But he spoke to the Eternal again, and said, “What if 40 should be found there?” And the Eternal answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the 40.” And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if 30 should be found there?” And the Eternal answered, “I will not do it if I find 30 there.” And he said, “I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if 20 should be found there?” And the Eternal answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the 20.”

And Abraham said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if 10 should be found there?” And the Eternal answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the 10.”  

When the Eternal finished speaking to Abraham and departed; and Abraham returned to his place (Gen. 18:23-33).

The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah
The Tradition provides a number of perspectives on the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. A plain reading of the text suggests that these men were morally unprincipled, inhospitable to strangers; licentious, proud and haughty. Ezekiel 16:49-50 states:  "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me." 

Jewish historian Josephus looks at all these factors in describing the sin of and Gomorrah.

“About this time the Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth: they became unjust toward men, and impious toward God, insomuch that they did not call to mind the advantages they received from him: they hated strangers and abused themselves with Sodomitical practices (Josephus, Antiquities Chapter 11, 1.194).

Abraham's defence
There is no doubting that these “Sodomites” were bad hombres in any number of ways. But even more interesting than the sin of Sodom is the unusually spirited effort made by Abraham in defence of their lives.  Abraham, speaking directly to God, demonstrates what in rabbinic parlance is referred to as chutzpah clappei shamayim– “speaking truth to power”. 

In the Etz Chayim Chumash, the editor argues that “Abraham’s challenge to God is rooted in the audacious claim that even God is subject to the moral standards divinely decreed for humans” (Pg. 103). What a revolutionary thought. Even today, some world leaders believe that the law does not apply to them. The Torah, however, is emphatic here as elsewhere in saying that indeed it does! 

Further down page 103 in the Chumash, in a section calling attention to practical halacha emerging from the portion, the text implies that not only God learned a lesson from Abraham, but so too the Jewish people: “Abraham’s conviction that God must be just has provided theological grounds for Jewish commitments to social action, for just as God seeks justice and helps the poor, so must we (Based on B. Talmud, Sotah 14a). 

What a wonderful, enduring message; a reminder that, like Abraham or like Moses, we must at times in our lives speak up and stand forward on behalf of those who may not be able to do so themselves, to in other words, show chutzpah.    

Any discussion of chutzpah brings to mind the old joke in which a criminal defendant, charged with the murder of his parents, throws himself on the mercy of the court on account of his being an orphan. Funny for sure, but there is more to it than that, more even than describing it is "gall" or "nerve". Having chutzpah means doing what is required when the moment demands and behaving justly in all circumstances. 

With that said, I encourage you to CLICK HERE to read a fascinating take on the contemporary meaning of the word chutzpah published in Forbes and written by Maseena Ziegler, in which she provides her readers several historical examples of those that have acted with chutzpah and, in so doing, dared to change the world. Perhaps at this week’s Shabbat table, you may wish to think about others who have made chutzpah more than a punchline, but something more akin to a way of life. 

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