The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Vayeirah: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

At the end of the last Parashah, Abraham and all the men in his extended family, their servants and employees all get circumcised. Recuperating, the Lord in the image of three angels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, visit him. This is where the Jewish mitzvah of visiting the sick comes from. Interestingly the angels in the Torah are referred to as "men" or "strangers", but very rarely as angels. And yet it is understood that they are angels. Even in his recuperative pain, Abraham leaps up and runs to receive the angels as his guest, which the Talmud explains by saying that the angel Raphael healed Abraham. He gives them bread and water, tells Sarah to make them wheat cakes, wanders into the flock to select a young calf to slaughter, and gets milk, cheese, and butter to serve the angels. From this, Jews are taught to be hospitable to strangers, who might secretly be angels.

The Lord has two astonishing pieces of news for Abraham. The first is that his wife, in her nineties and well past menopause, will give birth to a son. Sarah hears the angel Michael telling Abraham this, and she laughs in surprise. This startles the angel: "Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh."

I love this exchange. It's so human, and shows that God back then was still unused to interacting with humans.

Because of Sarah's reaction, the boy will be named Yitzchak (laughter in Hebrew), the name which is Anglicized as Isaac.

The second piece of news, given by the angel Gabriel, is that the Lord intends to destroy the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, because their citizens are cruel and inhospitable. The midrash tells a story that Abraham's servant, Eliezer, went to visit Lot in Sodom and was caught giving food to a beggar on the street. A Sodomite threw a stone at Eliezer, making him bleed. The Sodomite took Eliezer to court over the incident, and the Sodomite judge found Eliezer guilty of receiving a bloodletting without paying the bloodletter. In response,  Eliezer then struck the judge in the forehead with a stone and asked the judge to pay the Sodomite.

Another midrash tells that Lot's daughter, Paltith, encountered a poor man who entered the city who was now starving to death because he had no money for food. Each morning as Paltith went to collect water, she would hide bread in her bucket and sneak it to the starving man. After a few weeks, the Sodomites were astonished that the man had not died, and began to suspect that someone was feeding him. The caught Paltith giving bread to him, and as a punishment, stripped her naked, smeared her all over with honey, and strung her up at the gates of the city until the bees had removed her flesh. Her piteous cries were what the Lord was referring to in the Scripture when He told Abraham, "Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know."

Despite the notoriety of these wicked cities, Abraham intercedes on behalf of the people of the cities of the plain. "And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
 Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
 הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט

"Hashofet kol-ha'arets lo ya'aseh mishpat." The three letter sequence in Hebrew Shin-Peh-Teth is given as "shofet", meaning judge, and also, with the prepositional prefix "mi", gives "mishpat", meaning justice. Abraham is challenging God, ha-shofet kol ha'arets, or the Judge of all the earth, to do (or make) justice, or mishpat. This is the first time in the Bible that God has been challenged by a righteous man. Mishpat might need more explanation. There are three types of laws in the Torah:

  1. Mishpatim, or ethical laws. These are the laws that any ethical, rational person or society might come up with on their own. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal.
  2. Zakhorim, or laws of remembrance. Jews are commanded to connect with their ancestors and to remember their tribal history. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that God freed you from slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
  3. Chukim, or esoteric laws. These are more mysterious, and do not make sense at face value. Do not wear linen and wool in the same garment. If you become ritually impure through exposure to a human corpse, the priests will, in preparation for this circumstance, have prepared a mixture of the ashes of a red heifer, with herbs and other ingredients, and a volunteer will smear the mixture on you, and a day later, you will be ritually pure, but the volunteer will become ritually impure by doing this.
Of the three, the Chukim are the most controversial, and some rabbis do not accept that any rules are Chukim, but rather put them in the other two categories. The more rational Jews are slightly uncomfortable with Chukim, and the more mystical ones (like the Hasidim) tend to deep-dive into the Chukim.

Abraham pushes the issue:
And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it. And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake. And he said unto him, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there. And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake. And he said, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake. And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.
Abraham challenges God to be merciful. The rabbis claim this is what differentiated Abraham from Noah. Noah accepted God's genocidal judgment without question, but Abraham demanded that God spare the cities of the plain for the sake of ten righteous people. This is the courage of Abraham, and why he is the ethical ancestor of three of the world's major religions. He did not accept God's judgment  without challenging God to be more merciful. He moved back the Prime Mover.

For this, Rabbi Abbahu in the Talmud says, "God rules humankind, but the righteous rule God, for God makes a decree, and the righteous may through their prayer annul it." This is what it is to be a Jew: we will even argue with God when we think God is being unjust.

Why does Abraham stop at ten? Maybe because ten make up a minyam, the quorum needed for group prayer? Maybe because there were ten humans on Noah's Ark, and therefore we know that ten survivors can rebuild civilization? Even Donovan gave Atlantis twelve survivors.


  1. Hmm, so I'll try posting again. I've been ruminating on this idea of God being part of a conversation...and it's led me to look at the spiritual ancestry a little more closely than I had before. Here, you compare Abraham and Noah. To me, Abraham's story has always been a little odd- he could so easily have wound up on the wrong side of history. Noah coups have as well I suppose, but I always looked to him as one of the ultimate believers. What do you think?

  2. What do you mean by "the wrong side of history"?

  3. Well, for instance, stopping at 10. Or being willing to sacrifice his son. Abraham's line in the sand seems unpredictable to me...courage is a worthy value, but righteousness, that's subjective. I suppose it goes back to my initial problem with an evolving divine nature...that if God is present in the conversation, and that if He is somewhat defined by that conversation, (paused here to search for what I really meant, and here it is: the world seems a much scarier and less secure place).

  4. The world is scary and insecure. QV my post "This World is on Fire". The Binding of Isaac is a tough nut to crack but Abraham's righteousness comes from having to struggle for 100 years to have a son and then being willing to sacrifice the son at God's bidding. Again, it seems like a young God is figuring out the parameters of Abraham, and getting a bit lost outside the human dimension until Abraham reminds Him of his own humanity. The two angels rescue all the righteous people of Sodom before destroying it, so all the righteous *are* saved, but the city is destroyed because there are fewer than ten righteous people in Sodom.

    Abraham and Lot are creatures of a severely patriarchal society. So much so that some of what they do is disgusting in a contemporary morality. But it is a great error to judge people of the past with contemporary moral standards.