Abraham’s story is dotted with memorable tests, many in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera. One incident that calls to us in every generation is the “holy chutzpah” of Abraham arguing with God over the possibility of innocent souls in Sodom and Gomorrah, which God has slated for total destruction. Abraham’s response seems shocking: “Will You sweep away innocent along with guilty? … Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”
Jewish tradition imagines the behavior of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah that so provoked God’s anger. Clearly there is violence. Some interpreters posit that they were habitually unwelcoming of strangers, refusing to feed those who passed through and harassed them. A particularly creative midrash imagines their land was so fertile and blessed by God that one would pull a vegetable from the ground, simultaneously unearthing gold, silver or precious stones. And yet the inhabitants went to great lengths to avoid sharing the bounty — building fences around their gardens so that not even birds could feed.
God’s internal wondering: “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am about to do?” is striking in that it seems to be inviting Abraham’s argument — a test that Noah failed in a previous generation.
In this moment, Abraham sets the paradigm for justice work from antiquity to this day. Speak truth to power. Demand justice. Have no fear when challenging (even Ultimate) authority. Side with the powerless. All of these impulses have animated social justice movements and can be found in this specific incident.
But there is another less evident aspect of this story. Abraham appears to have failed in his efforts to protect the innocent — or defend the towns themselves. With the exception of Lot and a portion of his family, everything else is reduced to rubble.
Genesis 18 concludes: “When the Eternal finished speaking to Abraham, [God] departed; and Abraham returned to his place.” It appears Abraham’s protest was in vain. However, the decree against the towns had already been made. The point of this test was to see whether Abraham would stand up for right and justice and even stand up to God – and in this way, he succeeded fully.
There is a lesson here for all who struggle for justice. It is possible to lose the battle and win the war. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Abraham’s advocacy had less to do with the culpability of the inhabitants and more to do with the composition of his character. Abraham returned to his “place” — that is, to the characteristic of being one who cannot sit idly by suffering, but who embodies the impulse to do right and justice, successful or not.
Rabbi Craig Axler is the spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Md., and president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.