In this week’s parsha, the Torah reveals why God chose Avraham: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, that they should observe the way of God, to perform righteousness and justice” – the knowledge that Avraham will establish a nation that will uphold the way of God in the world, especially in the sphere of social justice. The Torah explains that this is also the reason for God deciding to reveal to Avraham the imminent punishment for the people of Sedom.
Avraham’s reaction raises a most difficult problem. He launches into a passionate argument with the Master of the Universe, claiming – inter alia: “How could You?! Will the Judge of the whole world then not act justly?!” How can a mortal – with all his mortal limitations, living in a relative world with such narrow horizons, dare to address such words to God? Is Avraham unaware of the fact that God knows everything, that He takes into account both that which is known and that which is hidden, present actions as well as future ones, to arrive at righteous judgment?
Our question becomes even more troubling if we compare Avraham’s argument here with his submissive, obedient response when God commands him to offer up his son. When God instructs him (to his understanding) to slaughter his only son born from Sarah – an utterly innocent person – Avraham sets off on his terrible journey in silence. Why does he argue on behalf of the people of Sedom, but not protest on behalf of his own beloved son?
The answer to this question involves understanding a most significant aspect of God’s relationship with man. There is a difference between knowing Divine plans and receiving a command.
In the interactive paradigm with which God created His world, Divine plans are not engraved in stone. Man is given a powerful will and free choice, and he has the ability to change almost anything in the world – including the course of history, the plans and actions of God Himself.
God reveals His plans explicitly through prophecy – as in our parsha, or through inference from events that take place – as, for example, when a person falls ill. A person is not expected to silently come to terms with God’s plan and to accept passively whatever happens to him. The world operates on the principle of interactivity: the course of events is given over to human choice and influence, to dialogue between man and God. “Now leave Me alone, that I may consume them”, God asks of Moshe following the sin of the golden calf. Our world is the scene of a drama with two main characters – God and man.
On the other hand, there are some things in the world that are engraved in stone: God’s commands; the Divine commandments. These are not open to negotiation. They are the rules of the game, and they are generally not set down by man. The story of Avraham’s argument of behalf of Sedom is an attempt by man to intervene in the course of history: this is his responsibility and his obligation. The story of the akeida (the binding of Yitzhak) is an expression of mankind’s subordination to God’s absolute command, to God’s demands of man.
These two systems are closely interrelated, as expressed in the system of Divine retribution described in the Torah. Fulfillment of God’s commands and attention to their observance give a person – and the nation – the Divine power to influence the world and to change historical processes. They also bestow upon him the right to participate in creating the interpretations of the commandments themselves – through the Oral Torah.
In our times, when events in reality are sometimes not in accord with our expectations, we should try to influence, rather than to accept submissively whatever happens to us. If we wish our influence to be sufficiently powerful, we must follow the path of Avraham, to “observe the way of God, to perform righteousness and justice”. Then, “Any person who has fear of Heaven – his words are heard.” (Berakhot 6a)