Balancing the Needs of Home and Community

Why did Abraham beg for mercy for the city of Sodom but not for his son Isaac?

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies. Reprinted with permission of the

Ever since I was a child, I've struggled with a fundamental question about Abraham's personality, a question which is posed by this week's parashah, Vayera. When God comes to Abraham to inform him that the city of Sodom is to be destroyed for its wickedness, Abraham responds aggressively by shaming God into agreeing to spare the city if 50 righteous can be found within it, saying,"Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Genesis 18:25). Then, with a bargaining style that would be the envy of any used-car buyer, teenager, or trial lawyer, he lowers the number to 45, to 30, to 20, to 10.

Abraham Takes Orders

In contrast, when God comes to Abraham and commands him,"Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him as a burnt offering" (Genesis 22:2), Abraham does not respond and heads off to do God's will. How could Abraham care so deeply for strangers, and not fight for the life of his own son?

abraham and isaacI stand further in awe of the zeal and single-mindedness that Abraham brings to his assignment. Rather than prolonging good-byes, he does not delay--arising and setting out first thing in the morning, and attending to many details himself. When God summons Abraham to offer up his son, (Genesis 22:1) God calls his name once, and Abraham responds "hinneni"--here I am. In contrast, when God's messenger calls upon Abraham to stop, at the last moment, (22:11), it is with a two fold repetition, "Abraham, Abraham"--Abraham must be asked only once to raise the knife, but twice before he will stay it.

I think the sages were trying to soften that perception when they re-imagined each phrase of God's command to Abraham as one side of a conversation, with Abraham taking the other side (Sanhedrin 89b):

"Take your son"

"But I have two sons!"

"Your only son"--

"This one is the only child of his mother, and this is the only child of his mother."

"Whom you love"--

"I love both of my sons."

"Isaac."

And Abraham is unable to respond further.

Trusting in God

The tone of this conversation sharpens the question in a different way, because it puts these events into the context of Abraham's treatment of his older son. When Sarah demands that Ishmael be sent away after Isaac is born, Abraham is deeply distressed. It is only after God reassures him that all will be well with his eldest son that Abraham sends him off to risk death in the dangerous desert.

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Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.