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Vagra 5782        October 23,2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

In our Parsha, God reveals to Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed because of their great wickedness. Rabbinic legend is filled with stories of the kind of evil that was in these twin cities. They were filled with cruelty to strangers, oppression of the orphan, the widow and the powerless. These evil cities used the law to perform acts of injustice. Pirke Avot tells us that the philosophy of Sodom was “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” It is selfishness in the extreme.

And yet, Abraham’s response to this information, that the cities will be destroyed, is “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice? The cities may be full of selfishness and cruelty but there could be innocent people down there. There could be people who go against the common culture and be righteous and just. We can ask, in our day and age, why would someone who believed in Justice stay in such a corrupt society? It is possible that they they performed their acts of righteousness in secret. Abraham argues that if there are any good people in those cities of evil, can’t the cities be spared on the merit of those who are good? How can God wash away the good people with those who are bad?

The Talmud carries this a step further. If God is a just God, if God is the Judge of all the earth, if Justice is the foundation of God’s rule, then we are all in big trouble. Strict Justice makes demands that we follow the law as it is written. And yet, human beings are terribly flawed. The world can not exist with strict Justice. God has already tried destroying the evil in humanity with the waters of the flood. That act of destruction, in the end, made no difference; people were just as evil as before. If God wants to save this world, then strict Justice will have to be tempered with Mercy.

Mercy, however, has its own problems. God cannot just let everyone off with a warning all the time. Without the punishment that goes with Justice, the world would descend into chaos. Mercy is great and important but so is a society that operates on the rules of Justice.

If you were to ask any judge that oversees criminal cases, you will discover that it is extraordinarily hard to decide when to extend Mercy and when to hand down Justice. Often it is not clear what the truth of any situation might be. Incorrect information can tilt Justice to a wrong conclusion. Sometimes Mercy can be not only the right choice but the best choice, but we never know if acting with mercy will not free a criminal up to do another worse crime. If we always know the truth, it would be easy, but we do not always know the truth, and truth itself is not always reliable. We can say something completely true and malign someone else. Such truth is the kind of truth found in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Right at the beginning of this week’s Parsha, we find Sarah laughing over the announcement that she will have a child. She says, “Shall I really bear a child if I am so old, and my husband is so old?” God reports the laughter of Sarah to Abraham, but he changes the sentence slightly, “Shall I really bear a child as old as I am?” God understands that Abraham might be offended knowing that Sarah thinks he is too old to father children. God leaves that part of the sentence out. Why not tell the truth? Mipnay darkhei shalom, for the sake of peace. It saves Abraham’s dignity and preserves family harmony. It is hard to argue that complete truth would have turned out better.

Strict truth telling can have far reaching effects. When strict honesty can hurt others, we have to stop and consider if what we are saying will create distrust and suspicion that can destroy families and friendships. It is not about telling lies as much as it is leaving out something that will do more harm than good.

The Talmud gives a direct example of what mipnay darkhei shalom, means. At a wedding one always says that the bride is beautiful no matter what any one person might think of her looks. It does not matter the level of beauty. We talk about a beautiful bride mipnay darkhei shalom, to keep peace in a family and to not destroy a relationship in its initial stages.

Rabbi Bradly Shavit Artson, the dean of the Zigler Rabbinical School at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles has written, “If serving the Lord does not lead to caring for the dignity of other human beings, does not lead to a willingness to protect another’s feelings even at the cost of being “honest,’ then there is something lacking in our notion of what God wants.”

And this is the force of what we see in this week’s parsha. God’s kindness to Sarah, mipnay darkhei shalom, for the sake of peace; God’s reply to Abraham when he asks, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do Justice?” and even at the end of our parsha, when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah, it is not clear who is testing who. Is God testing the faith of Abraham or is Abraham testing the compassion of God? We see God’s hand in this world when we notice God’s kindness, caring, compassion, mercy, and when we see God’s forgiving nature.

We live in a world where God is much maligned. People blame God for all the evil in this world. We ask, “how can a loving God not use divine power to rescue us from the problems that surround us every day? Why is there so much evil in the world; why is it done in the name of God? Why is there injustice in the world if God is all knowing? Why don’t we live in a place of balance and harmony; why don’t we live in the Garden of Eden?

We tried that once and it did not work out so well.

Human beings have taken upon ourselves the knowledge of Good and Evil. Whether that is a good thing, or a terrible thing is beside the point. Whether it was an original sin, a temptation or foreseen by God, does not matter. We have the power to discern Good and Evil. And we have the responsibility to use that power to discern to make this world better. Our duty in this life is not to be perfect. Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah are far from perfect. It is our responsibility to take the knowledge we have and to use it for the good of all humanity, indeed for the good of all the world.

Take a look at the Haftara for today; it reveals the same pattern. The Prophet Elijah was known for great miracles, and yet he dies unsuccessful; the people of Israel never follow his example. But in our Haftarah, Elisha, the successor to Elijah, performs miracles that are acts of kindness to families in need. No big miracles here, only daily acts to help those who are in need, and through it all he becomes one of the most beloved of prophets.

We know what is good or bad for our family, for our children and for our parents. And we know that it is kindness and compassion that help turn those we love to live a good life. We know what is good and bad for society, that everyone is not completely good or bad and we have to judge each person fairly. We know what is good and bad for our planet. What we need to do to save all life on this planet will be hard, but we know what we need to do.

God only asks us to act mipnay darkhei shalom, for the sake of peace. We need to stop blaming God for doing what we know is wrong. Deflecting our own guilt on God does not change anything for the better. Knowing what is right means sometimes taking a stand, going right when everyone else goes left; standing up when everyone else is trying to hide. We know when we need to speak up in the face of silence all around us.

And I have to add that speaking up, standing up and showing up do come with certain dangers. There are powerful forces of evil in the world that will be working to shouting us down, holding us down and leave us stranded and alone. We live in a world where in a flash, our picture, our vital statistics, our homes, and family can be in danger by those who spread their evil on social media. Hiding behind the faceless and nameless posts, they endanger all those who stand it their way. They are quick to make others cower in fright so they will not stop the progression of evil in the world.

I can only say that Good too is a power that that can stand up to all that is wrong. And with the power of faith, it can even be stronger. Judaism says that Torah is the blueprint for the creation of the world. It contains the structure, laws, stories, and ideals that make creation work for the betterment of not only human beings, but for all life on this planet. Calling out the selfishness, the greed and lies that are often all too common, Torah helps us see that everything can be more than it appears, if only we, who live here, bring out the best of all that is around us. Justice tempered with Mercy, truth that is spoken for the sake of peace, and even when we think that God is asking us the impossible, to know that we can even judge God’s actions through the lens of kindness and compassion.

Abraham and Sarah will be remembered for all the good that they performed in this world; for the hospitality, for the faith and the love they had for God. All of their failures will be forgotten as we turn to live by the examples, they set for us. The same will be true of Isaac and Jacob and they in turn will set the stage as slavery will be denounced and Israel will be called to establish a society where Justice, mercy, peace, and kindness will be the foundation upon which all else can be built.

We must not let anyone tell us that evil is inevitable and what is wrong can be declared right by those who might profit by the switch. If we shine the light of goodness, compassion, and kindness upon all we encounter, then we can bring joy, love, and peace to the world. And bringing the good out in life, is the reason we were created.

May God always help us see through the troubles of the world so we can find the path of justice and peace. May we use our Torah to protect the dignity of others. May these be the goals of our study, our prayer, and our actions as we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784