Challenging the Heavens
Abraham attempts to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
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Parashat Vayera centers on a phenomenal moment in Jewish tradition: the negotiation between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. By all accounts, the people of the doomed city do not have a lot going for them. Ezekiel enumerates their sins, saying "She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me" (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
But Abraham fights for them, claiming that there must be some number of righteous people within the gates. He asks, "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?…Far be it from you to do a thing like that!…Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Genesis 18:20-25).
Abraham challenges God. He advocates for the people of the city and for God’s own moral standing as a God of justice. Here Abraham demonstrates that he is iconoclastic, thwarting the traditional power dynamic between divine and devotee and bringing morality into the debate of action.
In a midrash, the rabbis characterize this remarkable interaction as prayer. Discussing the importance of kavanah mindfulness or intention--during prayer, the rabbis declare that Abraham is the highest exemplar. The midrash points to this story, saying “…And nobody had kavanah in their prayer like our father Abraham, which we see from the fact that he said: Far be it from you to do a thing like that!” (Midrash Tanhuma, Haye Sarah 1). What is it about this kind of hutzpah clappei shamayim, challenging the heavens--or what today we might call “speaking truth to power”--that the rabbis see as the ultimate spiritual expression?
Achieving Genuine Prayer
Genuine prayer requires a combination of openness and hutzpah--the strength of mind to honestly engage with what is within and around us, and the strength of imagination to see how it might be different. Abraham’s intense focus on approaching the world in this manner is a type of perpetual prayer. And in this case, he was able to push even God to do the same.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, theologian, civil rights and anti-war activist, also found great inspiration in using prayer's directed introspection as an impetus toward worldly engagement. His words describing prayer’s crucially confrontational nature are inscribed in the front cover of my siddur: