Parsha Vayera, Genesis 18:1-22:24 is full of so many important stories and events in the lives of our Biblical ancestors. It begins with Abraham and Sarah showing hospitality to three strangers who turn out to be Divine messengers. It continues with the promise, birth and near sacrifice of Isaac.
The stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Sarah and Abraham’s sojourn to the land of Abimelech are also contained in this parsha. And for good measure, we see the strife and jealousy Sarah has for Ishmael result in his being cast out with his mother Hagar. There is a lot of drama, strife and testiness in this parsha as we learn more about the type of people we are supposed to be from the examples in our sacred text.
This is why it is hard to know just what the juxtaposition of Abraham’s actions regarding Sodom and Gomorrah and the binding of Isaac are supposed to mean for us today. Why would Abraham feel comfortable challenging God’s decisions regarding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not question God when called upon to sacrifice his own son? Why would Abraham try to stop God from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah whose sins were well known, but then proceed to offer his own, innocent son, as a sacrifice to God without question? The answer may lie in who will derive benefit from Abraham’s pleas to God.
In the case of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is pleading selflessly for the cause of the righteous. While if he were to plea for Isaac’s life, it might be have been considered selfish and self-serving. Is this then an ultimate act of humility and obedience from Abraham? Or perhaps, since he knew that God had already promised him that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the grains of sand on the shore, Abraham knew that God would never make him go through with the physical sacrifice of his beloved Isaac?
While we can’t know for certain what our biblical text is actually trying to teach us through these different stories, perhaps it is a reminder to us of our responsibility to use our powers and privilege to always benefit our community and world, when we can. We are taught that a disagreement for the sake of Heaven, machloket l’shem shemayim is indeed a worthy endeavor. While arguing for the sake of simply stirring up trouble or dissent is not. By speaking out on behalf of the possible righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham uses his privileged relationship with God to help others and his argument was for the sake of decency, righteousness and kindness.
In this day and age when so many people are voiceless in the face of oppression, pain and prejudicial assumptions, we need to use our privileged position in society to speak out and plea their case to God and the world. We need to use our voices to argue on behalf of bringing justice and righteousness to the world. May our deeds multiply and may we be worthy of the blessing given to Abraham, that all the nations be blessed by our words and our deeds.
Rabbi Paula Jayne Winnig serves as interim rabbi at Congregation Rodef Sholom in Youngstown.