Genesis 18:1-22:24

2 Kings 4:1-37

Why does God choose Abraham as the one with whom to form a covenant? What is our responsibility toward God to fulfill our side of this bargain and receive the threefold promise of becoming a great and populous nation, receiving the land of Israel and being a source of blessing to the nations?

God tells Abraham that He will destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their evil, “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He had promised him (Gen. 18:19).”

Midrash Ha-Gadol expounds on this verse, giving each phrase specific meaning: “The way of the Lord” – this refers to acts of kindness. “What is just (tzedakah)” – this refers to giving charity. “And right (umishpat)” – this refers to the work of the judges. But the midrash does not stop here. It goes on to derive an important lesson from the order of these terms in the verse: “From here we learn that acts of kindness are greater than charity, and charity is greater than justice.”

This was Abraham’s singular quality, and the characteristic God most demands of us as a condition of covenant. Abraham saw the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah but also believed that even these terrible communities were deserving of God’s compassion. That is why Abraham undertakes to argue with God, demanding not just that the few righteous individuals in those places be saved but that for their sake the entire cities should be saved.

Abraham understood what the rabbis would later derive from the verse “Burn the evil (ha-ra) from your midst” (Deuteronomy 17:7). They noted that the verse says, “the evil (ha-ra)” and not “the evil ones (ha-rasha or ha-r’sha’im).” From this they taught God’s message was not to eradicate the evil-doer but rather to wipe evil from their heart and to turn them toward God in repentance. He understood that true justice must be rooted in compassion. It must not be simply punitive or destroy the wrongdoer. It should instead seek to change them for the better so that they will not commit the same wrong again.

Sadly, our criminal justice system in Ohio is built on the opposite premise: that justice is achieved by being as punitive as possible. It favors jail over drug treatment, rehabilitation and job training. It has expanded the term felony to cover so many minor violations that even someone convicted of possessing less than an ounce of marijuana (now legal in many states) cannot get a job, qualify for housing assistance or secure a student loan to get the education and training they need to change their life. Those sanctions remain in effect for their whole life. Instead of helping individuals free themselves of addiction and rebuild their lives as good members of society, our system throws up every obstacle and denies individuals the very tools they need to change. In the end we just reinforce the cycle.

Until we limit the use of “felony” to serious crimes – and until we create paths for convicts to do true repentance and reintegrate into society – we will have failed this most fundamental test of God’s covenant.

Rabbi Stephen Weiss is senior rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike.

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