Torah Talk on Vayeira 5780
If you were to define the ultimate Jewish characteristic, you might start with our tendency to argue about everything. Or you could list kvetching as the most Jewish attribute of all. But I think that chutzpah is very likely the quality that people should see as the most Jewish aspect of all.
This week’s parshah of Vayeira is famous for many things, not least of them the prediction of the birth of Isaac and the binding of that favorite son of Abraham on the altar in the Akeidah, also chanted on Rosh HaShanah morning. But perhaps of greatest importance here is the message we learn from Abraham’s insistence on protesting for justice in the incident of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a signal indication that we, as Jews, have a moral responsibility to speak up when we know that injustice is being promoted, or even made possible, to show chutzpah in the service of righteousness.
In Vayeira, God decides to punish the evil actions of the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. These two towns dripping in rottenness were located in the depths of the Jordan Rift Valley near the Dead Sea. In a dramatic dialogue Abraham argues with God on behalf of the spectacularly sinful citizens of the worst cities of the ancient world, the Las Vegas and Atlantic City of that time. Our father Abraham insists that God be absolutely certain that there are no righteous people in these places before destroying them. In fact, he has the temerity to insist that God should feel guilty about entertaining the very possibility of killing the innocent people along with the guilty, of executing collective punishment. Abraham puts it, memorably: “Shall the Judge of the whole earth not act with justice?”
It is a supreme act of chutzpah, the first Jew of all time using Jewish guilt to emotionally blackmail God into being more just, and more merciful.
But there are really two different versions of Abraham in this same Torah portion. There is the guy who immediately does everything that God commands in the section of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, a section that fortunately ends happily with a ram caught by his shofars in a bush substituting for Isaac as a sacrifice.
Rabbis always preach about this on Rosh HaShanah. I, personally, never preach about the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. Because the lesson we really learn from it is not the one our rabbis teach.
God orders Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, on Mt. Moriah. And Abraham does as he is told without complaint, does not protest at all, and the result is that he nearly ends up killing his beloved child on the altar of his faith.
That, to me, is an obedient, faithful, compliant Abraham—the non-Jewish version of Abraham. It is the Abraham who doesn’t have the chutzpah to protest to God against an insane, unjust order.
I much prefer the Jewish Abraham, the guy who argued for the no-goodniks of Sodom and Gomorrah, so concerned was he with the ethics of God’s justice. That’s the kind of great Jew we should all admire. That’s the Torah portion we really should be reading on Rosh HaShanah, a reminder that every Jew has a responsibility to stand up for justice in every circumstance.
It might not make us easy or comfortable. But it puts us on the side of right, which is where we Jews really need to be.