"God is so far from us. How can I question God?"
Abraham, our founder, our patriarch, provides a possible answer. In Genesis 18, we read that God has plans to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God says, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" and then tells Abraham about these plans (18:17). It would have been easy for Abraham to be silent. In his time, that was the way one reacted to what a Middle Eastern ruler planned to do. But he does not. In one of the greatest acts of chutzpah, he questions God's plans and criticizes God's justice: "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. Shall not the Judge of the earth deal justly?" (18:23,25)
One would also have expected God to act like a typical Middle Eastern ruler of ancient days, killing Abraham on the spot. But God does not, allowing instead the famous dialogue between God and Abraham to ensue, ending with agreement that God would not destroy the cities if ten righteous people should be found in them.
Thus, God agrees with Abraham's ethic: The Judge of all the earth must act justly.
This is the God for me―not a dictator but a partner; not a tyrant but one who shares the laws of justice with us.
This is the God for me―one who dialogues with humanity. We can express our hurts and grievances. We can ask the ultimate questions, even though the ultimate answers might not be within our reach.
Abraham pushes the limits and paves the way for Moses, who questions God's desire to wipe out the people and create a new nation from his family. Abraham paves the way for the prophet Jeremiah, who asks why the wicked prosper and why those who deal treacherously live in comfort. Yes, he paves the way for Elie Wiesel who questioned God while in Auschwitz and still asks ultimate questions more than fifty years later. The dialogue between Abraham and God in parashat Vayeira sets the pattern of partnership between us and God. We are partners with God in the ongoing process of creation and in tikkun olam―perfecting the world. Only a God who cares passionately about justice and righteousness would demand that we do justly, love mercy, and thereby walk humbly with our Divine Partner.
At the time of this writing in 1997, Jeffrey Stiffman, Ph.D., was the senior rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth, Creve Coeur, Missouri.
The conversation between God and Abraham, as related in Genesis 18:17-33, presses us to question our relationship both with God and our community. This rich text provides more questions than answers. The questions that follow are designed to lead you in discussions with others about the text.
Abraham challenged God's plan to do away with evil. Have you ever challenged the plans of someone who is more powerful than you are? What effect did if have on you? What effect do you think this dialogue with God had on Abraham?
In this passage, God shows an awareness of the issue of killing innocent souls along with guilty ones. This dilemma presents itself to us even today. Can you think of instances when you or your community has had to face this dilemma?
In Genesis 19:29 we read, "Thus it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain and annihilated the cities where Lot dwelt, God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval." Do you believe that Lot was saved as a direct result of Abraham's conversation with God? Was he saved because he was an innocent person or simply because he was a kinsman of Abraham? Consider that moments before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot offered to give his daughters to a crowd of rapists.
What makes a person "innocent"? Can you identify ten innocent people in your community? Do you feel that the community as a whole is entitled to benefit from having these people in its midst?
Abraham chose to argue with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Then why does Abraham remain silent only ninety verses later, when God instructs him to sacrifice his beloved son? How do you explain this? Compare the two passages.
Questions for Families with Children:
We are God's partners. Think of a partner in you life. How do you act with a partner, a parent, a supervisor/teacher, a student, and a friend? Are there limits to each of these relationships? When you disagree with the above people, how do you express your disagreement? How does Abraham act as God's partner? What are the limits to the relationship between Abraham and God?
Before God tells Abraham about the plan to destroy these two cities, God ponders, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" (Genesis 18:17) But God chooses to treat Abraham as a partner. Why does God do this? Does God need a partner?
What do you think of Abraham's decision to argue with God? Was Abraham successful? In what way? In what way was Abraham's plea unsuccessful?
What do you think being a partner with God means in your own life?
At the time of this writing in 1997, Cheryl Stiffman Maayan, M.A.J.E., was teaching second grade at the Rashi School in Needham, Massachusetts.
Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110