Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
A Place of Great Evil
In this week’s Torah portion we encounter a place of great evil: Sodom and Gomorrah. And God, in our story, has resolved to destroy both cities. It seems that, together with the Babel episode just a few chapters earlier, God has something against humans dwelling in cities. I suspect that, for the agrarian people of the Torah—composed mostly of shepherds and farmers—the fortified cities of their enemies represented all that was evil in the world.
God has heard the wickedness and sinfulness of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and He is about to come down to wipe these cities from the face of the earth. But in this case, God isn’t sure how to proceed, mindful that He is of Abraham’s anticipated reaction. God’s Self talk in this passage is remarkable:
Should I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? […] For I have selected him, so that he may teach his children and those who come after him to keep the way of the Eternal, to do what is right and just… [Gen. 18:17-19]
In a surprising expression of openness, God ends up sharing His plan with Abraham—including him in the decision process—with the full knowledge that he might argue against His plan to destroy the cities, which, it turns out, Abraham forcefully do. Abraham’s plea, on the surface level, might appear to be on behalf of the few righteous people that might still live in Sodom or Gomorrah. At a deeper level, however, it is a plea on God’s behalf and on behalf of humanity as a whole. Abraham harangues God:
“Heaven forbid! Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” [Gen. 18:25]
The Midrash (the homiletic Torah commentary) translates Abraham’s words to be saying: “The judge of the whole earth shall not do justice — if it is a world You want, then strict justice is impossible. And if it is strict justice You want, then a world is impossible.” (Bereshit Rabbah 49:20). Abraham seems to be arguing with God that a world of absolutes is not achievable in the dualistic relative plane of creation; that if absolute justice is what God intends for His world then He will continue to destroy it time and again. A degree of compassion, of loving-kindness, chesed in Hebrew, is what is needed in this relative plane to balance out justice, for a world to be sustainable. Abraham, in the Kabbalistic tradition is the one who embodies these energies of compassion and loving-kindness. He is the biblical character whose name is associated with the Sephirah of chesed on the mystical Tree of Life.
And so perhaps this passage in our Torah portion is there to remind us that, despite what the world is telling us—and what our ego is prone to believe—there is no absolute evil in the world. In the moments when we find ourselves rendering (absolute) judgments about who we are, who others are, and how things should be, we, like God in our Torah portion, might be best advised to consult our inner Abraham before giving voice to our destructive wrath.