Our patriarch Abraham is venerated by our tradition for many good reasons. He is a most dedicated and obedient servant to God, having been willing to leave his homeland with his family and travel to uncharted territory. He is a humble and gracious host setting the example for his household of how to welcome traveling strangers into his home and provide nourishment and rest for them. Abraham’s faith and hospitality have inspired people of all monotheistic faiths for centuries and explains why we refer to him three times a day in our prayers.
But perhaps the most important religious trait that Abraham models for us – as found in this week’s portion VaYeira – is his unyielding advocacy for justice. The very strangers whom Abraham welcomed into his tent turned out to be angels – angels on a mission. After they informed Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child of their own in a year’s time, the angels moved on to Sodom and Gomorrah. There they encountered Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family. The angels convinced Lot, his wife and daughters to leave the city to escape the imminent destruction.
As the angels were talking with Lot, God was in dialogue with Abraham. God informed Abraham that because 50 righteous people couldn’t be found in Sodom and Gomorrah, God would destroy the cities. Abraham, instead of being the loyal servant, argued with God. Abraham is incensed that God would consider annihilation as an option to eradicate evil. He says to God, “ha-shofayt kol ha-aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat – The judge of all the earth shouldn’t act justly?!”
Abraham’s chutzpah is at once stunning and liberating. We might have expected the loyal servant to just listen to God and to further take in the lesson that God was teaching (namely that there is no place in the world for evil). Instead we find the student transformed into an active graduate. The justice that Abraham apparently learned didn’t match the justice that God wanted to enact. Therefore Abraham needed to argue for the innocent minority. How could even a few righteous people be allowed to be swallowed up by God’s imminent destructive wave? Abraham felt he needed to be the voice for those people – he needed to advocate on their behalf. The Torah agreed with Abraham’s approach and by including this exchange the Torah teaches us an eternal lesson.
Advocacy for the disadvantaged and the under-served is not only an ethical imperative, it is a religious one. All decent people know that everyone – no matter their health, ability or economic status – has the right to be included equally in society. It certainly takes tremendous energy to ensure the rights of all. We know this; and yet Abraham’s rallying cry for justice should be inspirational to us. It should motivate us in our work and our everyday life. We should never tire of working and advocating for those in need because even God can hear our cry and listen to our prayers. If Abraham could change God’s mind, then certainly we can make change, too.
Rabbi Jonah Layman has been the rabbi of Shaare Tefila Congregation in Olney, MD since 1994 and is the liaison of the Rabbinical Assembly on matters affecting people with disabilities. He serves on the Jewish Disabilities Network and on the steering committee of Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition.