Of blind obedience and the lessons of Parashat Vareya


The book of Genesis begins with God deciding to create human beings to rule all the other created things: “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth and all the creeping things that creep on earth” (Genesis 1:26). It seemed like a good idea at first … until it went horribly wrong.

In the chapters that follow, God came to see the downside of creating humanity. Adam and Eve ate the one thing God told them not to touch. Cain murdered his brother Abel. Violent behavior convinced God to drown (almost) all of humanity. Even after the Flood, human beings tried to challenge God by building the Tower of Babel. 

God was frustrated by humanity, beings whom God created to rule creation who could not even rule themselves. God then selected Abraham as a moral and spiritual exemplar – someone who could show the world what it means to be a righteous person. Through Abraham, God would let human beings know what was expected of them. What happened next, though, may have come as a surprise even to God.

In this week’s Torah portion (Vayera) God decided to trust Abraham, his exemplar, with some insider information – the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. God asks, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him?” (Genesis 18:17-18).

Maybe God thought that, given Abraham’s mission to teach the world about God’s ways, he needed to know about the plan to use Sodom as an example of how not to behave. Yet, instead of accepting God’s plan to punish Sodom, Abraham questioned it and challenged God’s own morality.

Abraham protested, “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?” (Genesis 18:25).

Abraham turned the tables on God and told God that the plan did not measure up to God’s own standards of justice. The story has a certain flavor of comeuppance. God is hoist by the Divine petard. The very human being God designated to teach humanity how to rule over creation, almost inevitably, ended up trying to overrule God.

That may not be such a bad thing, though. Abraham is presented as the ideal man of faith, and faith is not understood by the Hebrew Bible as mere blind obedience. To be truly faithful, one must be willing to question, to argue, to look deeply into the nature of morality and faith. Even God’s actions should not be exempt from our consideration.

After all, God must have had a reason to create us. Maybe God put us here to keep God in line. Maybe God created us because God needs to have a friend who will speak up and let God know when things are going wrong. All of us need a friend like that once in a while. Why shouldn’t God?

This, I believe, is one of the central defining qualities of the Jewish relationship with God. Maybe it is a quality that is unique to Judaism. To be a Jew is not just to obey God. It is not just to submit yourself to God. It is not just to accept God’s rule. For Jews, that is not enough. 

The God of Abraham expects us to know that we are not God, yet also expects us to rise above our human imperfection by engaging with God in a conversation about what it means to be human. This ongoing, back-and-forth argument with God elevates us to a level beyond the limitations of flesh and blood, beyond our animal inclination toward violence, disobedience and arrogance.

For a Jew, it is no sin to argue with God. It is a necessity. It makes us God’s partner and, paradoxically, it makes us God’s trusted friend.

RABBI JEFF GOLDWASSER is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Cranston. He is the author of the blog, rebjeff.com, from which this d’var Torah is adapted.