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Parashat Vayera October 26, 2018

10/26/2018 09:07:58 AM

Oct26

Rabbi Robinson

I want to spend a moment talking about the word ‘audacity’.

It means a lot of things: the willingness to take risks, to be brave and intrepid. It can also mean impudence; showing a lack of respect. Recently, in a meeting of some local Jewish community leaders, it was pointed out that I have a tendency to be audacious when I speak in those settings. I’d like to think they meant the good stuff; I’ll leave it up to you and them what they actually meant.

It’s a word that has become a little cliché, especially after President Obama’s book with that word in the title, The Audacity of Hope. Doesn’t that seem like a long time ago, now? We hear that word being used again and again in different contexts: business, social action, politics and religion. It’s an app for recording on the computer. In our own Reform Movement you can’t go to a national program without hearing someone talk about “audacious hospitality”, for example. Which sounds awesome, if a bit nebulous. Abraham Joshua Heschel most famously used the word to talk about the Jewish religious experience. He referred to the idea of the prophets and living prophetically—that is, protesting injustice in the world with words and actions—as spiritual audacity.

What do we mean when we talk about audacity?

We could argue that Parashat Vayera is one story of audacity after another. Abraham’s audacity of leaving God’s presence to serve three strangers along the road. Sarah’s audacity to laugh in the face of her husband’s old age. Hagar and Ishmael’s audacity to live. And in this case, Abraham’s audacity to challenge God. Here, God tells Abraham of the Divine intent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s response? He immediately challenges God. Not just meekly ask questions, but throw it back in God’s face: Chalila lecha! God Forbid that you should do such a thing! Will not the judge of the whole world judge righteously?

We love this story as a story of chutzpah, as a story that shows that God wants us to challenge, to push back. We lift it up as an example of God-wrestling, of how God seems to especially love those who want to see justice in the world and aren’t afraid to stick their neck out to get it, willing to challenge every authority figure—even the ultimate authority figure. We can even read this text of Torah as if there’s an ellipsis after God tells Abraham of the imminent visit—and doom—of Sodom and Gomorrah. As if God is actively inviting Abraham to respond, and respond provocatively.

But here’s the thing; despite all of the back and forth between God and Abraham, despite Abraham’s challenge, despite the audacity of the protest, it doesn’t work. Abraham negotiates God down to 10 righteous individuals, and there aren’t EVEN 10 in the whole of the plain. For all of Abraham’s audacity’, God still destroys Sodom. The protest fails. Or does it?

The answer to that question depends on the point of the exchange. If the point is to save Sodom, even in spite of itself, then the answer has to be that Abraham is a failure. But what if there is another purpose? What if this is God teaching Abraham—and by extension, us—how to be audacious? My teacher, Rabbi Shai Held, writes in his The Heart of Torah, “God wants Abraham to train his descendants to do what is just and right, but Abraham cannot teach what he himself has not yet learned. Abraham needs to learn how to stand up for justice and how to plead for mercy, so God places him in a situation where he can do just that.” God doesn’t need to ask Abraham for what to do, or even let Abraham know what’s going to happen. God can just let fly with the fire. But God doesn’t; God opens the door to allow Abraham—and us, Abraham’s descendants—the possibility of moral confrontation.

And if we want to be more theologically radical, the late Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Hartman Institute, wrote, “The God of Nature acts alone, the God of history, however, acts in a relational context.” That is, our God, the God of Torah, is not some unmoved mover, but seeks out partnership and, therefore, limitation. Held again, “God wants—indeed, God actively solicits—the intercession of the prophets. Argue with Me, God says, stand up to Me and persuade Me.”

Why is this important? Because it is so easy to ask, “why bother?” It’s easy to simply assume that our every effort to make a difference in this broken world is doomed to fail. Even if we were not living in a world where political enemies received pipe bombs, and those who spoke up for justice were ridiculed and mocked; we would grapple with this question. What’s the point of talking to political leaders if they’ve already made up their mind on how they’re going to vote? What’s the point of protesting injustice when it seems like no one is listening? As one example, what’s the point of getting email reminders, daily, that there are still hundreds of children separated from their parents when they are not yet reunified? What’s the point of voting, even, when the outcome seems certain? What’s the point of feeding the hungry or clothing the naked? They will merely be hungry and destitute, and if not them, others. Because, to return to Abraham Joshua Heschel, indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. The point is not winning, though we hope to win. The point is that the words need to be said, the act needs to be made, the conversation needs to be had. As the Talmud reminds us, whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is held responsible for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his or her community and does not do so is held responsible for the transgressions of his community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is held responsible for the transgressions of the entire world.” (B. Talmud Shabbat 45b). And so, we stand next to Abraham. We draw near, as he did. We find the strength to lift up our voices. We hear the ellipsis in the conversation, the invitation by God to speak up, to challenge. And we respond, audaciously. Because we must.

 

Fri, January 18 2019 12 Sh'vat 5779