A ‘BISSEL’ OF TORAH Parashat VaYera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24)

When I was growing up, my neighbor had a beautiful poster hanging in her window.  It said “If you want Peace, Work for Justice.”  Every time I went over to her house I would read it to myself and it became an injunction for the way that I walk through the world.  I believe that it is one of the early life messages that eventually led me to embark on a career in community organizing.  While justice work remains at the center of all that I do, I have been reflecting lately on why I left the organizing world for rabbinical school.  After 6 years of work in the field of political strategy I understood that I needed more.  I wanted to understand Jewish history, thought, ritual, and practice on a much deeper level.  I also believed that engagement with and nurturance of my own soul, grounded in Jewish texts, would sustain me for the long haul as I worked with my community for Justice.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-Yera, Abraham challenges God on his intention to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  He bargains with God and they come to an agreement that if God can find 10 good people, God will not destroy the cities.  During the course of this discussion Abraham says, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?[1]”  In Rabbi Sheldon Lewis’ Torah of Reconciliation he writes that it is also possible to understand this question as a declarative statement, “The Judge of all the earth should not do (strict) justice!”  He continues with his drash[2]saying that Abraham was advocating for God to look at the people in Sodom and Gomorrah through the lens of mercy.  Of course justice has its place in the world, but so does compassion and loving-kindness.

In support of his argument Rabbi Lewis cited a related Rabbinic interpretation:

“‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?’: If You want justice, there will be no world; if You want a world, there will not be justice.  You seize the rope from both of its ends.  You want Your world, and You want the judgment of truth.  If You do not loosen [Your grip] a little, Your world will not persist.[3]”  This midrash is addressed to God but I believe that it has bearing on our world today and our relationships with each other, human-to-human.  I often find myself in despair over the murder of Black people in the USA, the Syrian refugees desperately trying to get to Europe, or the escalating violence in Jerusalem.  There are, in my belief, people in all of these situations who are acting in the name of truth, righteousness, and justice and there are also those whose actions inflame the situations and do not treat every person as though they were created B’Tzelem Elohim           [4].  What is my relationship to all of these people?  I can comfort myself with my righteous indignation, applaud those who work for justice, and frown upon those who are not acting in upstanding ways.  But what if I comfort myself by seeing everyone’s flawed and messy humanity?  And once I recognize the humanity of everyone who is in the middle of conflict and oppression perhaps they will recognize the humanity in each other.  My wish for the Am Haskalah community this week is that, in the spirit of Parashat Va-Yera we see each other through the lens of mercy and do our best to send compassion and love to the parts of our world that are currently in flames.

B’Shalom/In Peace,

Student Rabbi Shelley Goldman

[1] Genesis 18:25 JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (New JPS Translation, 1999)

[2] interpretation

[3] Midrash Rabba, Leviticus 10:1

[4] In The Image of God