D’var Acher: Bringing Heaven Down to Earth
Rabbi Moffic suggests that our human actions, as exemplified by Abraham and Sarah’s modeling of “welcoming guests,” hachnasat orchim, can “bring heaven down to earth.” He suggests that the ethical way Abraham and Sarah approach this mitzvah imbues it with special meaning, and quoting Rabbi Soloveitchik, reminds us that God does not have separate standards for our ritual and ethical acts.
Many of the rich stories that follow in this very same parashah challenge the ethical nature of humanity and God’s hopes for God’s Chosen People. “For I have selected him [Abraham], so that he may teach his children and those who come after him to keep the way of the Eternal, doing what is right and just. . . ,” (Genesis18:19). And what does it mean to keep the way of the Eternal? It means to act in an ethical manner to do what is right and just. And so, in pleading with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah in the very next story in this parashah, Abraham takes an ethical stance and questions God’s own justice: “Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Genesis 18:25). Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut tells us Abraham’s pleading fails, “not because his moral stance is faulty but because his premise is wrong: There are not enough righteous people in the cities who could make a difference” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005] p. 121). We are reminded that it takes the impact of a courageous band to bring about change and that if there are not enough righteous people, they will perish with their neighbors as do all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In her commentary in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Judith Plaskow claims that Parashat Vayeira is “filled with violence” from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar, the deception against Abimelech, and finally, the Akeidah. She argues that this parashah ultimately teaches by negative example:
This Torah portion makes clear that our ancestors are by no means always models of ethical behavior that edify and inspire us. On the contrary, often the Torah holds up a mirror to the ugliest aspects of human nature and human society. It provides us with opportunities to look honestly at ourselves and the world we have created, to reflect on destructive patterns of human relating, and to ask how we might address and change them. ([New York: URJ Press, 2008] p. 107)
May it be that we are like those few of Sodom and Gomorrah who numbered less than ten but strove to do as Plaskow encourages us to act in this day, and as Abraham did in his day; to bring about positive change by our ethical actions. May our own ethical actions support the cause of all who suffer injustice, and may we be like Abraham and Sarah in our relating to all strangers so that we might bring heaven down to earth.
Deborah Niederman, R.J.E., is an education specialist in the URJ Congregational Consulting Group.