November 18th: Vayera
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
Though both Judaism and Christianity see themselves as religions of the Holy Scriptures (a.k.a. “Old Testament”), the fact is that both represent significant re-interpretations of the religions of the Tanakh (Jewish acronym for the “Old Testament:” T for Torah, N for Nevi’im/Prophets, and KH for Khetuvim).
Judaism is the religion of the Old Testament as seen through the lens of the Talmud. Christianity is the religion of the Old Testament as seen through the lens of the New Testament.
In the Talmudic reinterpretation/reforming of the Tanakh’s religious teachings, one of the most striking changes is the introduction of The World to Come—a place of reward or punishment after we die. Though the Tanakh speaks of Sheol, a place where dead people dwell, there was no sense of reward or punishment after death. As we learn in Deuteronomy, the rewards for obedience to God’s Will—as well as the punishments for disobedience to God’s Will—come in this world/life.
This Deuteronomic Theology is problematic for obvious reasons: all too often, the good suffer, and the evil prosper. As Oscar Wilde wittingly put it (in the words of Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Ernest): “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”
A less recent struggle with the unjust state of things comes in the ancient Book of Job. Despite the fact that Job is totally just, he nonetheless endures all kinds of suffering. Why? The text considers a variety of possible answers but ultimately concludes with a question mark and a statement of faith. We may not know why the good suffer and the evil prosper, but God has a much larger purview and a greater purpose.
This answer satisfies some, but not all, and one can see the introduction—by the Rabbis and their “Oral Torah”—of an afterlife with reward or punishment as a response to the incompatibility of Deuteronomy with the unjustness of the world. If God is just, then God simply cannot let the evil prosper and the good suffer. The greater purview in Job must mean that God rights the scales of justice after we die. It is a matter of simple deduction.
One may ask, however, about the assumption that God is just. Do we know this to be the case? Most ancient religions taught about the power of the gods and not their goodness. Indeed, in most ancient religions, the gods were seen as capricious, and much religious effort was devoted to assuaging them and cajoling them—sometimes even pitting one god against another.
Though we differ in our understanding of the Divine—sensing a Divine Unity instead of many gods, our ancient texts too emphasize God’s power and hegemony. In so many stories in the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh, we are reminded/warned to pay attention to and obey God because of God’s great power. How, then, do we know about God’s goodness and righteousness? We know because of this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, and the discussion in Genesis 18 between God and Abraham in re Sodom and Gomorrah.
The narrative tells us of a visit God makes to Abraham and Sarah. One purpose is to inform them that, despite their advanced ages, they will soon be parents. The other purpose is to discuss with Abraham God’s plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. In a kind of Biblical soliloquy, God considers the discussion: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and al the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…” God wants Abraham to understand the Divine judgment so that Abraham can explain it in the world.
This is why God so tranquilly endures Abraham’s objections: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”
God wants Abraham to understand the Divine ways, and Abraham insists on certain standards for the Divine. Interestingly enough, God accepts Abraham’s expectations, and the famous bartering process begins. Though Sodom and Gomorrah do not even have the minimal ten righteous people (a minyan!), God refuses to “bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty,” and rescues Lot and his family.
What we have here is the very clear statement that the Judge of all the earth will deal justly. It is a definitional statement of God’s goodness—in the Torah!
If we believe that God is the Source/Writer of the Torah, then we have this standard declared by God Itself. God is just and will not do anything unrighteous. If, on the other hand, we believe that people wrote the Torah based on their experiences and understanding of the Divine, then we have the Jewish belief stated very clearly: our understanding and expectation is that the God of the Universe is just and righteous and good.
Thus do our Sages (Rabbis) proceed in the years after the Bible and intuit or deduct the existence of a World to Come, a place where the Just and Righteous God of the Universe rights the scales of justice which may not have been fairly balanced in this world.