VaYera: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
“Beyond our Ego’s Idea of Justice”
In his life’s storyline, Abraham did not always rise to the occasion of his ethical challenges. Yet this aspect of his story is worthy of praise: his standing up to God in the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham remained standing before the Eternal…then came forward and said: “Will You in anger sweep away the innocent with the wicked? … Far be it from you to do such a thing, killing innocent and wicked alike, so that the innocent and wicked suffer the same fate. Far be it from You! Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly? (Gen. 18:22-25)
What a powerful question to ask! Our entire Western Civilization is, indeed, founded on the answer to this question. We need to know that God acts justly. If we are going to project onto a God “out there” infinite omnipotent power, we want reassurance that He will use it for good and not do so indiscriminately or whimsically. Though God never responds to Abraham in our story, we have assumed since biblical times that God’s answer couldn’t have been anything other than a thundering “Yes He must! Absolutely. Unquestionably.”
And since we have continued to witness injustice in our world, since we have continued to see the innocent suffer in every generation, we have resolved to either blame it on the victim’s own necessary wickedness (even when the victim is us), or to externalize this punishing aspect of God and place it onto God’s made-up alter ego: Satan or the devil. So that when bad things happen to me or to others, it is either my fault, theirs, or the devil’s fault. But it is certainly never God’s fault. And if we know ourselves or the others to be good and innocent, then the suffering we bear or witness around us is simply held as being beyond our limited comprehension; that, obviously, God has a greater (just) purpose, which will be revealed in a distant future. Because God acts justly, always!
It is our concept of a God exclusively “out there,” transcendent and otherworldly, that pushes us to become intellectual contortionists in order to fit our narrow idea of what the Divine is into the box of our own limitations and egotistical needs. But when we no longer limit God to otherworldly status, when we follow the Jewish mystics and open ourselves up to seeing the Shechinah (the indwelling Presence of God) awakening in/through/as all of Creation and recognize the inner spark of the Divine within us and within every sentient being, then we can free God from the claustrophobic walls of the exclusionary box that we have created. Then we can say with the Chasidic Masters that there is no one, no when, no where, nothing that God is not. God awakens as light and shadow, good and evil, justice and injustice. No wonder God does not answer Abraham’s question; he might not have been able to handle “Yes and no” as an answer. But can we? Can we stop needing our world always to be just?
Can we live in a world where wrongs aren’t always righted? Where, sometimes, the innocent suffers and the wicked thrives? Where the evils done to us might never be avenged? Can we let go of our anger, our resentments, and our need to punish the other? Can we take responsibility for our wrongs and hold others accountable for theirs, while acknowledging that all of us—as expressions of the One—contain both the brightest light and the darkest darkness? Can we act as channels of the deepest love—taking a stand for restorative justice, choosing rehabilitative incarceration rather than execution for murderers, raising our voices for the voiceless, and acting passionately to heal our world— without being attached to any particular outcome? Can we act justly lish’ma (for its own sake) without expectations, without preferred end result, just because? When we do, then we will no longer need God or our world to conform to our egos’ needs and wants. And then, perhaps, we will be able to find the inner peace that has eluded us so far.