Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
“Will You really wipe out the innocent with the guilty?” [Gen. 18:23]
In Vayera we find Abraham at his very best, risking his life by challenging God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In Abraham’s world, authority was absolute. No king would ever allow someone to challenge their decision, yet over the next several verses Abraham dares to do that not merely with a king, but with the Almighty! Make no mistake, this was a dangerous business. Abraham risked his life when he asked God to spare the cities if fifty innocent people could be found in their midst. Incredibly, God agreed, yet Abraham did not stop there. He continued to challenge God, whittling away at the number until he eventually negotiated it down to ten. Not only did Abraham escape punishment for his temerity, but God agreed at every step of the way! Unfortunately, however, for Sodom and Gomorrah not even ten innocent people could be found.
The Abraham of this story, willing to challenge even the Divine to protect life and God’s reputation in the world, is my hero.
A few chapters later Vayera shows us another Abraham. One who is willing to sacrifice his own son at God’s command. How do we reconcile the Abraham who challenges God directly to save strangers from the Divine decree with the Abraham who agrees to kill his own son?
This is the question that the Midrash HaGadol tries to answer. According to tradition, God tested Abraham ten times, with the final and greatest test being God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. The sages teach that Abraham passed all ten tests with flying colors. God’s decision to destroy the cities was one of these tests, and Abraham rose to the occasion. However, according to Midrash HaGadol he only partially passed. Abraham should not have stopped at ten; God would have spared the cities for one innocent person.
For this reason, says the midrash, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac: to teach him the value of even one human life.
May this be a lesson for us all.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras