Vayera: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
“A Place of Great Evil”
Whereas Lech Lecha invites us to consider the nature of Sacred Space, Vayera introduces us to its complete opposite: the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. This story, combined with the story of Babel just a few chapters earlier, might seem to suggest that God has something against humans dwelling in cities. More likely, it was the agrarian people of the Torah—mostly of shepherds and farmers—who viewed the fortified cities of their enemies as the font of all evil.
God has heard the wickedness and sinfulness of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and is about to wipe their cities from the face of the earth. Mindful of Abraham’s anticipated reaction, however, God isn’t sure how to proceed. The Divine 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 remarkable expression of openness, God confides in Abraham—including him in the decision process—with the full knowledge that Abraham might argue against the Divine plan to destroy the cities. And indeed, Abraham does plead for the people, and forcefully so. On the surface level, his plea may appear to be on behalf of the few righteous people that might still live in Sodom or Gomorrah. At a deeper level, 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 the world, then God will have to continue to destroy it time and again. A degree of compassion, of loving-kindness—chessed in Hebrew—is what is needed in the relative plane to balance out justice—din/gevurah in Hebrew—for a world to be sustainable. Abraham, in the Kabbalistic tradition, is the one who embodies the energies of compassion and loving-kindness. He is the biblical character whose name is associated with the sephirah of chessed 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.
PS: I am starting an “Introduction to Kabbalah” course on November 22nd. It is free and open to everyone both in person (if you are in the Seattle area) and on Zoom (if you are not). We ask everyone to register so that we can email you the private Zoom link for the course. For more information click here. Thanks!