One of the questions that comes up a lot when I teach Parshat Vayera is this: Why doesn’t Abraham protest when God commands him to sacrifice Isaac, when he speaks up on behalf of the people of Sodom? The assumption behind the question seems to be that it is right for Abraham to speak up for the Sodomites, and that his failure to object to God on behalf of his own son is a moral failure. But I’d like to see what happens when we reverse the question: If Abraham doesn’t speak up when God commands him to sacrifice Isaac, why does he speak up for the people of Sodom?

First we should take notice of a remarkable internal monologue ascribed to God, which reveals God’s thinking in telling Abraham about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Then the LORD said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just (tzedek u’mishpat), so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.'”(Gen. 18:17-19)

What is God’s motivation for telling Abraham about God’s plans? Rashi comments here that, since God had indicated that Sodom would be part of Abraham’s inheritance, God was now changing the terms of their arrangement, so God needed to tell Abraham about it. But we can glean a further understanding by looking at the highpoint of Abraham’s objection to God:

Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”(Gen. 18:22-25)

The keywords in this passage are tzedek and mishpat, righteousness and justice. Abraham’s objection seems to be this: If you punish the wicked along with the just, you will be subverting the very meaning of the words righteousness and justice! By implication back to God’s opening monologue, the problem becomes: how can I instruct my descendents to do justice and righteousness if you’re going to change the meaning of those words! It is analagous to the problem Rashi sees: how are we to make a covenant with God if God is going to change the terms of the Covenant? God needs to be a reliable partner, and Abraham’s objection challenges God to keep God’s word.

This doesn’t necessarily help us to understand Abraham’s silence later on at the Akedah. Perhaps we can draw a distinction between Isaac’s potential offering-up as a sacrifice–which the ancients would have seen as an honor–and the fate of Sodom, which was clearly a punishment. Perhaps the issue that drives Abraham at Sodom–the loss of meaning of the central words of his mission–is not present at the Akedah, since the Akedah is not about justice and righteousness, but about emunah, faith and fidelity.

These explanations may work for some, and they may ring hollow for others. The Akedah is one of the most challenging texts in the Torah, and it does not make for easy explanations. But my point in looking at Sodom this way is to help us see that it is not enough simply to ask why someone speaks up in one case but not in another. We have to look at each case individually. And when we look at the case of Sodom, we see that Abraham’s concern is to make sure that certain values remain timeless and not open to renegotiation, the values of tzedek and mishpat, of righteousness and justice, which are to be the core of our people’s covenant with God.

Shabbat shalom.

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