Abraham got circumcised when he was 99, in this Torah portion. His changed name of Avraham highlights the importance of the sacred covenant between himself and God. We now see him acting, praying, and thinking as a different man - as a Jew conscious of his role in our history. Just a few minutes ago we chanted the Amidah which hearkens back to this watershed moment of God's covenant with Abraham
I was always fascinated with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God informs Abraham that Sodom will be destroyed due to the wickedness of the people there. Abraham then questions God's decision.
Will you destroy the righteousness along with the wicked? Following this caustic reproach of God, Abraham proceeds to argue with God, hoping to spare the two cities. God amends God's divine judgement, telling Abraham that if there are 50 righteous individuals, the cities will be spared. Abraham whittles down the requisite number from 50 down to 10. As a boy, I imagined Abraham as a take-no-compromise businessman, bargaining down for the best deal that he could find.
I am aware that things are just a bit more complex than my childhood Sunday School recollections.
Toward the beginning of the portion, God thinks to Godself, akin to a Shakespearean soliloquy. God reflects, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I intend to do? Perhaps God wanted to see how Abraham would react to the news.
After Abraham argues with God to spare the wicked cities, the Torah tells us that Abraham stood yet before the Lord. And Abraham drew near.
Rashi expands upon Abraham's drawing near to God. He gives us three insights that relate to this expression.
It can imply that Abraham speak harshly. One approaches someone with the intent of speaking criticism or harsh words. And here we have Abraham criticizing God. It even reads as if Abraham is angry.
It can also refer to appeasement. Abraham acknowledges that he is but dust and ashes. This is in deference to his God that will make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; the God that will grant Abraham a son that will continue to carry out the established covenant.
Lastly, One draws near in order to pray. Abraham turns to God in prayer. He prays for a different fate for Sodom. He also prays that God will heed him rather than turn away. Similarly, in the Amidah, we too thank God for hearkening to prayer.
Prayer. Thousands of years after Abraham, we too draw near to God for this purpose. We pray for supplication as we ask God for forgiveness, beseeching our creator to let us back into favor once more. We pray for the arrival of health, of happiness and of peace. Abraham is the first congregant – the first worshipper – the first person to draw near to god – the first to pray to God.
You may remember that Abraham comes 10 generations after Noah. It's most likely that Abraham knew about the flood and Noah's ark. He knew that God is capable of mass destruction and prone to anger and harsh judgments. And yet, Abraham still has the moxi, the courage and the chutzpah to confront God in anger and argument.
We have a responsibility to approach God in order to dialogue, to pray, and yes, even to argue. Abraham's argument with God shows that Abraham was an important voice in the continuation of creation.
As a young school boy, Elie Wiesel would come home from school, and his mother would sit him down and pour him a cold glass of milk. After talking for a bit, she would ask most intently, Did you ask any good questions today?
Wiesel's mother would have been proud of Abraham as he asks God about the death of the righteous along with the wicked.
By asking a question of God's impending action, Abraham was a participant in the divine covenant, the chain of which we find ourselves standing upon.
And what will we choose to do? We who are the generations blessed through Abraham? Will we turn to face God, or will we take refuge along with Noah in an ark, safe amidst the tempestuous waters? Will we hide our inner thoughts, or confront them in a dialogue turned towards God?
We are all but dust and ashes. But just like Abraham, who came 20 generations after Adam, the entire world was created for us. We are prone to catastrophic events and unanswered tragedies. And yet, we have the power to alter the subsequent fate of creation by questioning the reality that we experience. If only we turn and stand before the Lord in moments of strength and truth.
As we continue on our path of drawing near to ourselves, our communities and God, what questions will we ask?