Parashat Vayeira contains some of the most well-known and controversial texts in the book of Genesis, including the . These words we read and hear on Rosh HaShanah remind us that no matter how strongly we feel about our principles, we cannot sacrifice our fellow human beings to realize them. The miraculous birth of Isaac and his conflict with Ishmael precede this event. The children of Sarah and of Hagar each have a narrative worthy of respect. Coexistence among nations and within families requires no less.
The opening of this week’s reading is the model of. Abraham and Sarah welcome angelic visitors, even as these moments prophesy an unlikely but blessed future. While any of these texts would be worthy of an exposition of their own, this year’s reading of Vayeira falls during the first week of November: election week. I cannot think of a more significant time to read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Genesis 18 describes the famous interaction between God and Abraham, as the progenitor of the Jewish people seeks to save the residents of these two troubled cities, including his nephew Lot.
Abraham sees Sodom as the home of his clan, not as an abstraction to be written off. And despite the fact that Sodom does not share his values, he seeks to support and save its inhabitants. Despite their problems, these cities were inhabited by fellow human beings created in the image of God. We can reject their evil behaviors, but where there is life, we must seek the hope of repentance.
Abraham does not judge these communities but rather challenges the Divine One to find any righteous inhabitants and to save the entire populations of both cities on their account. Abraham’s powerful, challenging moral focus is clear in Genesis 18:23,25:
Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?...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?”
Abraham teaches us that we cannot write off our fellow humans because their behavior troubles us; we must even be willing to call out God if that will help rebuild our society’s moral fiber without condemning our fellow human beings. While we are compelled to judge behavior, we must leave judging people to the Holy Blessed One.
The confrontation between Abraham and God is introduced by an important, if often overlooked, statement. In Genesis 18:22, the Torah reports, “The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing ( ) before the Eternal.” Abraham demands a prayerful audience from God. What is his goal in forcing himself into the Divine presence? As Ovadia Seforno comments on this verse:
“Even though the destroying Angels had already arrived in Sodom, Abraham continued to seek mercy and to defend the innocent. As our sages say, even if a sharp blade has reached a person’s throat, one should never stop seeking mercy.”
As I write these words in August, the shape of the United States election and events surrounding it are undefined. However, by the time Shabbat Vayeira arrives on November 7, much more will be known. While elections decide who will hold office, they do not release us from the obligation to build a better future. Whatever the shape of these political events, we must continue to seek righteousness and justice and peace.
Despite this season of great tension and conflict, Abraham’s example must guide us: We must seek mercy, forgiveness, and justice for all. Though we might not understand those whose worldview seems to be 180 degrees from our own, that does not make them beyond redemption. We must demand mercy and model it on this Shabbat Vayeira and beyond.