Posted on March 23, 2011
by Judah Kerbel
November 7, 2009/20 Heshvan 5770
Who is your best friend? Think about one person who you define as your best friend. A “friend” in this case does not have to mean a “comrade” or a peer of any sort, but rather someone who is your closest confidant. How did that person earn your trust? What motives might you have for such a friendship?
In Chapter 18 of Bereishit, we have two stories: the birth of Yitzchak and God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (and Avraham’s plead against it). In between the two stories – before God reveals his plans to Avraham – we hear God’s thought process through the decision to reveal those plans to Avraham. The Torah says:
“And the Lord said, shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing? Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have know[n] him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, to the end that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken to him” (Leibowitz translation).
Nehama Leibowitz, one of the most essential contemporary scholars of Torah, understands this verse to serve as a bridge between the first and second stories. Yitzchak, who was born in the first part, is the first of many descendents of Avraham who will be responsible for carrying out a certain mission that is brought in the second story – that of justice. Through Rashi, Leibowitz explains that God chose to reveal his plans to Avraham because God knows him – meaning that God has an intimate relationship with Avraham – and expects Avraham and especially his children to carry out the mission of righteousness and justice. Indeed, the idea of knowledge of God is explained to be doing what is righteous and just. This is Leibowitz al regel echad (that’s an expression in Hebrew meaning ‘on one foot,’ or in summary).
After we hear God think to himself, we immediately see Avraham act to fulfill God’s mission. Even though their wickedness was despicable, Avraham wrestles with the justice in wiping out two entire towns. He cannot conceive of the idea that there is not at least ten* righteous people in each of these two towns and feels uncomfortable or anxious that God would completely obliterate these towns.
As descendents of Avraham and inheritors of the tradition, we bear equal responsibility for fulfilling justice. There are people who assert that we have a lesser obligation to help non-Jews versus helping Jews. But my read of this episode based on what we established above is that we have an equal obligation of spreading justice throughout the world wherever needed. I’m preaching to the choir here, but I see this to further emphasize the necessary role Jews should take in speaking out against genocide in Darfur, and to speak out against justice in your own communities just as much. But I also see this as a command to be justice – that the very essence of who you are should be justice. The inscription on the front of my favorite siddur is da lifnei ata omed – know before whom you stand. Wherever you are, you stand before God in your obligation as a Jew to lead a righteous life and create a world of justice. When you look back on your life, will God have known you for your contributions of justice and righteousness?
*As a sidenote, I want to mention that the ten people that would have been required to save Sodom and Gomorrah can be seen in light of the minyan. We do not do d’varim bikdusha, matters of holiness (i.e. Kaddish, k’dusha, barchu) without a community of ten people. Enough people to create a minyan to bring holiness in Sodom and Gomorroh was not to be found.