Bar Mitzvah+40, and God and Abraham Are Still At It

For Congregation Ner Shalom

There's been so much conflict in the air of late. Some personal stuff, but also big stuff -  the long political standoff of the last two weeks most notably. Maybe the big stuff feeds the personal stuff as we all get into moods of hopelessness or unyieldingness. But now there has been softening. Despite everything, the government is back to work and the debt ceiling remains unbreached. Inspectors are dismantling Syria's chemical weapons. Iran is talking about us - Americans and Jews - politely. How does that happen? How are deadlocks broken? How is brinksmanship reeled back in? Is it deadlines? Appearances? Exhaustion? Random bouts of conscience?

One wonders all these things reading this week's epic Torah portion, Parashat Vayera. In it, angels visit Abraham and Sarah; Sodom and Gomorrah are reduced to smoke and ash; Lot's unnamed wife turns famously to salt; Sarah conceives and gives birth; Hagar and Ishmael are exiled; and Isaac is nearly sacrificed on a mountaintop. Epic.

(Bar Mitzvah Boy, circa November 1973)

This portion also looms large for me because it was my Bar Mitzvah portion, 40 years ago this Hebrew week. Forty years is a long time, a length of time of biblical proportions. Because in Torah, 40 is the formulaic number used to mean "lots and lots." The number of days of rain the Earth endured. The number of years our people wandered in the desert, from the narrow place of enslavement to a Promised Land overflowing with milk and honey. Forty is a number of transformation - the requisite time units required to transform planet or people.

The excerpt I was assigned to read from Parashat Vayera when I was 13 was a short conversation you might remember between Abraham and God. Abraham has just received three visitors - generally thought to be angels, Midrash says they are Michael, Gabriel and Raphael - to whom he shows tremendous hospitality there in the harsh Canaanite heat. There are three angels for three tasks, since tradition says angels cannot multitask. Michael is there to prophesy the birth of Isaac. Raphael is there possibly to heal Abraham from his circumcision, which happened at the end of last week's parashah.

And Gabriel's errand? To bring down the city of Sodom.

After welcoming and feasting them, Abraham sees the angels off. Once they're on their way, Abraham pauses to have a talk with God about God's ethics. Abraham, who is 99 and has seen a lot by this point, asks God what I think is The Money Question, the question that is still The Money Question, nagging at our faith right up to this moment. Abraham asks, "Will you destroy the righteous along with the wicked?" Then he gets specific. What if there are 50 innocents in the city of Sodom. Would God still destroy the place? To which God replies that no, he would save the city for the sake of those 50.

I sometimes wonder if Abraham was surprised at this response. After all, living in this world means seeing good people swallowed up as often as the wicked, if not more often. I picture Abraham realizing he was onto something, and trying to maintain his best poker face while deciding whether to push further. He does. What about 45? Could five people short of 50 really make that much of a difference? What about 40? 30? 20? And then finally, what about a minyan of ten decent people? "Yes," says God. "I would save the city for the sake of the ten."

And that's the end of the conversation. God turns his attention to Sodom; Abraham stays put.

I remember as a 13-year old, being thrilled at this portion. I loved Abraham's chutzpah and his flowery diplomacy in this passage, flattering even as he presses. I loved the idea that with enough initiative you could persuade or pester or somehow prevail on God to change course. You could stand up against injustice, even if the unjust institution was Divinity itself. At that age I'd already been exposed to the Civil Rights Movement and I had a natural attraction to feminism. So speaking truth to power, as they say, while it scared me, seemed the noblest thing one could aspire to do. (And not to compare, but while Abraham spent several minutes advocating on behalf of Sodomites, I have done it for nearly four decades. Just saying.)

Anyway, as a kid I loved that Abraham dared. But there was another part of me that was disappointed, perhaps even a little ashamed of Abraham. Because why, I kept wondering, did he stop at ten? Couldn't he have pushed God to five? What was the downside? And why not one? If there was even just one good person in Sodom, should that person have been destroyed along with everyone else?

Then the older me, the one closer to this side of the 40 years goes even further: why not zero? Why are we only counting the righteous people? What if there were only wicked people in Sodom? Weren't they still deserving of life? Weren't they also God's children? And why is God destroying cities anyway?

We don't know exactly what the crime of the people of Sodom was; for all we know their wickedness might in fact have been far-ranging and multi-faceted and infinitely creative. We do know that the townspeople wanted Lot to hand over his guests so that they could "know" them, meaning sexually. And while that stands in contrast to Abraham's lavish welcome of those same guests, it is a little disingenuous to say that the big crime of Sodom was inhospitality, as has at times been suggested, probably to draw more distance from the accusation that the capital crime of the Sodomites was homosexuality. Torah seems to be pretty clearly pointing to a sexual crime here, most undoubtedly a violent one. But still, do they deserve death in return? And if they don't, then how much the moreso if the crime was mere inhospitality?

But even if the crime was violent and sexual and unthinkable, is there no redemption for them? Could they not have repented and changed like the Ninevites in the Jonah story, whose crimes are unspecified but also presumably serious to the point of being a capital offense? Couldn't God have helped them want to change? Yes, yes, the Prime Directive - no messing with humanity's Free Will. But would sending an angel to smite the people with a quick wave of remorse be that much worse than sending an angel to bury them in brimstone?

And what about Lot, Abraham's nephew? To his credit, he doesn't turn his guests over to the mob. But how does he play his Big Hero Moment? He offers his daughters instead. Not himself. His daughters. And for this we are supposed to understand him to be a righteous person, worthy of being saved? In my imagination, it was that moment, not her later equivocation, that turned Lot's wife to salt.

No, the moral knots of this story get more tangled the more you try to untie them. Because eventually we need to turn back and look again at that strange conversation between God and Abraham that was the centerpiece of my Bar Mitzvah.

What the hell is going on in that conversation? What kind of theological mess is it? Is God that pliable? Do we want God to be a pushover? Maybe. Or maybe we'd prefer a God that doesn't entertain lobbyists.

On the other hand, looking closely at the passage, is God actually bending at all? Abraham does seem to win an important rhetorical victory. But Sodom still goes up in smoke. How exactly does anything end up different? Isn't the all-knowing God fully aware of exactly how many righteous people are in the city? But he lets Abraham prattle on about honor and fairness and justice anyway. Is God just patronizing Abraham? Agreeing to terms that he knows will not bind him. Couldn't God have said at the outset, "Listen Abe, I know where you're going with this. Save your breath. These people are toast. Gornisht helfen."

In the words of Aretha Franklin, "who's zooming who?"

My study partner in Boston believes that the idea that there is persuasion going on here is wrong. God and Abraham were not bargaining. Abraham fully expected the destruction of Sodom. But as our patriarch, as the one building a relationship with a previously unannounced deity, he wanted to know as much as he could about how this new god operates. So Abraham's questions are not about getting God to change his position. They are to flesh out God's ethical framework.

This makes sense to me too. If God is going to destroy an entire people, Abraham might want to know a bit more about how God makes the decision to do so. After all, the Great Flood was just ten generations earlier - recent enough to be not just legend but an inherited and visceral terror. Noah himself, according to the math of Torah, was still alive in Abraham's time, and the sight of this survivor, enduring so many extra years of unshakable nightmares, could not have been a pretty one. So yes, Abraham might have wanted to know the exact point of no return, where life sentence tips over into death sentence, not for the sake of the people of Sodom at all, but for his own people and those who would come after him. So that they - so that we - could know and steer clear and survive.

But maybe the youthful assessment that God is pliable is not completely wrong either. Maybe things aren't entirely as they seem. In the portion, right before Abraham turns and addresses God, we have the rare privilege of eavesdropping on a divine thought bubble. God says,

Shall I hide from Abraham this thing which I will do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him? For I know he will command his children after him to keep my ways.

God has a qualm. Seemingly not a qualm about the blow he will deliver in Sodom, but an uncertainty about the effect of that act on others in whom he is invested. God is uncertain whether honesty is the best policy or whether he should just keep working in mysterious ways. Somehow Abraham, I think, correctly perceives God's hesitation. God here is not only invisible, but transparent also. And Abraham generously launches the discussion without God ever having to decide whether to tell him or not.

There is something I like about this moment of God's uncertainty. Even if God is being an unyielding force of cause and effect - Sodom does X, the predestined response is Y - still, it seems God worries whether all of this was such a good idea.

I like the greater complexity, the subtlety. That the power you rail against is perhaps not monolithic. If that is the case with God, how much more so the authority we experience in our earthly lives. We might portray institutions that oppress us as inflexible, we might paint them as evil. But earthly institutions are made up of real people with hopes and dreams and fears and relationships. And that should be a hopeful thing. Because individuals can change, and their institutions inevitably change with them. Forty years ago I would not have foreseen same-sex marriage, or thirty years ago or twenty. But people do change, in part because of the kind of intimate conversation we see in Vayera, in which someone dares to challenge a loved one's moral stance. The Abraham-like advocate has a role, and that Abraham-like advocate is each one of us.

So maybe the world is not as unyielding as it looks. If God is present in our actions, as the Kotzker Rebbe suggested when he said that God is present wherever you let God in; if our combined actions are God, as Mordecai Kaplan suggests in his Reconstructionist rethinking of Judaism, then of course God is a God who puzzles. Because we do. We drey about what path to take. Sometimes we can't influence the outcome; sometimes we can; sometimes our influence will only be felt 3 or 4 or 40 outcomes from now.

So I think there are a couple possible truths here. We are the heirs of Abraham. Arguing with God is our legacy, as it was for the very same Kotzker Rebbe who, when seeing the violence enacted upon the Jews around him, demanded that God be bound by God's own laws. Quiet obedience has never been our strong suit. And the other truth is that we are also made b'tzelem Elohim, in God's image. We each sometimes wield authority, individually or in community; we do so sometimes like veritable forces of nature. But we have the ability to slow down, to question, to wonder and, most important, to listen. There is nothing that we do that is unstoppable, that is unbendable, that is irremediable. No government standoff - or any other kind - is permanent.

Forty years I've lived with this story. Journeyed with it. Only to discover that in the end I'm transformed and not transformed, coming to rest not far from where I started: still proud of the Abraham in all of us, daring to speak some truth; and still believing that the world, despite everything, can change.


Thanks to Reb Eli Herb, who first suggested that God and Abraham were not sparring at all. And of course to Rabbi Mark Shapiro, who assigned me the portion, and who is always present somewhere in all of these drashot.