This Tuesday, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many YCT semikha students went down to the Lower East Side to help those suffering from the effects of the hurricane. Students spent several hours handing out water, batteries and flashlights to elderly people stuck in their apartments with no power. Many of these residents were Jews, but many were not. The students’ assistance, and their very presence, provided material and emotional support when it was urgently needed. Our responsibility towards another person in need, whether Jew or non-Jew, is a major theme of one of the central stories of this week’s parsha, Avraham arguing with God in defense of Sodom and Amorah.
This story is perhaps one of the most dramatic human-Divine interactions in the Torah. This scene is powerful not only because of the image of a human challenging God, but also because of the power of Avraham coming to the defense of people that were outside his family and outside his clan. Judaism is often critiqued on the basis of its particularism, but here we find Avraham embodying what seems to be a universalist ethos. Is this actually the case? How are we to understand and how we can best characterize what motivated Avraham to defend the people of Sodom?
Rashi and Ramban offer a number of explanations, commenting on the verses that introduce this story. In Breishit 18:17-19, we read:
And the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?
For I know him (or “I have chosen him”), that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he has spoken of him.
How do these verses shed light on why God deems it proper to inform Avraham of God’s plans? Rashi (Gen 18:17) offers the following explanation:
That which I will do – in Sodom. It is not appropriate for me to do this thing without informing him. I have given him this land, and these five cities belong to him, as it says, “The border of Canaan is from Zidon… going to Sodom and Amorah” (Gen. 10:19).
According to Rashi, the reason to inform Avraham – and, presumably, the reason for Avraham to come to the defense of the people of Sodom, was because his interests would be hurt as a result. His property, his future cities, with all their wealth and human resources would be destroyed. If we were to translate this into Rabbinic terms, the reason to be concerned for non-Jews is mipnei darkhei shalom, because of ways of peace. Enlightened self-interest tells us that if we are good to those around us, they will be good to us as well. Ultimately, however, it is our own self-interest which is the motivator.
Ramban (Breishit 18:18) gives a different explanation:
The correct explanation is that God spoke regarding Avraham’s honor. He said: Behold he will in the future be a great and mighty nation, and his memory will be among his seed and all the nations of the land for a blessing, therefore I will not hide this from him. For [were I to hide it], future generations will say – How did God conceal this from him?! or How did this righteous man act so cruelly regarding his neighbors who lived next to him, and he did not have compassion or pray for them at all?!
While Ramban mentions that it would be cruel to stand idly by and not come to the defense of these people, the primary concern here is what others will say: “Future generations will say…”. How will his perceived inaction impact how people perceive who Avraham was and the God that Avraham represents. Put in Rabbinic terms, this is the concern of hilul HaShem, how our actions might lead to people thinking ill of the Jews or ill of God’s Torah and God’s people. It is, again, not problematic in itself, but problematic in terms of the perception that it creates.
While these first two reasons do not speak of an intrinsic universalist ethos, the final comment in Rashi does:
I have called him Avraham, the Father of many nations, and I should destroy the children and not inform the father who is my beloved?!
According to this, all people are ultimately one, and therefore we have a responsibility towards all people. Rashi, however, falls short of a true universalist ethos, because he is not saying that we are all descendant from Adam, and hence all one, but rather that all people are part of Avraham’s family – that is, all people are part of the extended Jewish family.
The best understanding of Avraham’s motivation, however, emerges from a closer look at the verses themselves. The key words in those introductory verses are that tzedakkah u’mishpat – righteousness and justice. “… and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment.” (verse 19). Avraham is concerned that the tzaddik, the righteous, are not destroyed with the wicked, and the key word, mishpat, is repeated over and over again when Avraham argues with God. “Hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat?!” – “Will the Judge of the whole earth not act justly?!” (Gen 18:25).
The point of the opening section is thus quite clear. Avraham represents derekh Hashem, the path of God. Now, we are told many times in the Torah to follow in the path of God, but only one time does the Torah tell us what that path is, and that is here. The path of God is to do tzedakkah u’mishpat. Now, if that is what Avraham represents to the world, and the message that he has to pass down to his children, then it is necessary that he be given an opportunity to defend that principle in the destruction of Sodom. If God would not inform Avraham, and Avraham would not rise to their defense, people would either believe that God did not inform Avraham and that God’s act was not in keeping with tzedakkah u’mishpat, or that Avraham was informed and did not truly represent this principle. By informing Avraham, and by letting him challenge God on the basis of this principle, and by God nevertheless finding it just to destroy Sodom, it was clear that God’s actions were just and that Avraham was a faithful representative of this principle.
The implication is that tzedakkah u’mishpat demands that we refuse to tolerate injustice, that we must protect those who are oppressed, regardless of race, nationality or religion. If one believes in justice, and in justice as a Divine trait, as the way of God, then justice must be given to all equally. If one wants to be like God, then one must always act to protect those who are oppressed, those who are the victims of injustice.
Now, not all suffering is due to injustice. Not all those in need are being oppressed. The fact that many people are without health care, clean water, decent education, or a stable home life, can, it is true, be seen as an injustice perpetrated by society. But we do not necessarily view these problems through that lens, nor would we want to always frame our helping of others as standing up to injustice. Moreover, there is plenty of suffering that is no one’s fault, as those who have been affected by Hurricane Sandy can attest to. Here our responsibility to the other can be rooted in another form of following derekh Hashem, and that is in caring for all those who are vulnerable, all those in need:
For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, mighty and awesome, which favors no person, nor takes bribes. He executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and garment. Love you therefore the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:17-19).
This, in the end, is how Rambam reframes the concept of darkhei shalom. Not enlightened self-interest, but rather following the ways of the Torah which are ways of peace:
Even regarding the non-Jew, our Sages have commanded us to visit their sick and to bury their dead alongside the Jewish dead, and to feed their poor amongst the Jewish poor, because of ways-of-peace. Behold the verse says, “God is good to all and His compassion is on all of his creatures.” And it says, “Her [the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace.” (Laws of Kings, 10:12)
From Avraham we learn that to follow the derekh Hashem is to do justice, to refuse to tolerate injustice wherever we see it. This was why Avraham was chosen: “For I have known him that he will teach… the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice”. This was his message to the larger world. And while it is true that in the helping of others we must prioritize those who are closest to us, we must never forget that when we see others suffering, we must act. This too is derekh Hashem, this is the way of God, this is the way of peace, this is the way of the Torah.