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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There are many approaches to the resolution of this paradox.For instance, many Jewish sources (e.g. Pirkei Avot 5:3) understand thatthe banishment of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac were the culmination ofGod's 10 "tests" of Abraham's faith. Some would argue that seen in this context, the changing responses show a progression of deepening faith.

Should We Argue Against a Divine Decree?

At first Abraham had challenged God's wisdom aloud (in the case of Sodom) or required reassurance, even though his doubts were unspoken (in the case of Ishmael). Abraham's willingness to give up his own son could then be seen as an example of having reached the most profound level of faith, a deep appreciation that indeed everything belongs to God. There are those who find this explanation comforting, but for me it rings false when viewed in light of the actions of Moses and later prophets--men and women of faith. In the words of my teacher, biblical scholar Yochanan Muffs, they "stood in the breach" to ask God to overturn the divine decree and defend the innocent.

Abraham's behavior makes sense in light of his cultural milieu. Archaeologists may debate the actual prevalence of the custom of child sacrifice in the ancient Near East, but the biblical text portrays it as a norm of religious expression that was a temptation for Israelites even long after Abraham's day. Abraham's relatively advanced moral sense might have enabled him to perceive that collective punishment of innocents was wrong. However, if the false, powerless idols received human sacrifice, why should Abraham give any less to the one true God, a God who had already given, and demanded, so much? Some modern thinkers have suggested that the true test was not whether Abraham would indeed offer up his son, but whether he would not.

One could also see Abraham's behavior as reflecting a certain purity of purpose. Abraham was a man of such humility that he would challenge the creator of the universe on behalf of others, but would recuse himself from the divine court when the matter was one of personal interest. Of course Abraham's care for the people of Sodom need not be seen as purely disinterested; his estranged nephew Lot lived among them, and he had already acted once (in the battle of the five kings against the four kings) to rescue its people from disaster.

Conflicting Priorities

Recently, I've come to appreciate the paradox in light of what it means to balance responsibilities as a parent with responsibilities to the larger community. I have a renewed respect for my own parents, who somehow managed to make family their first priority despite their devoted involvement in the life of our local community and the larger Jewish world.

Even though many struggle with the question of how to balance family time with work and professional life, the challenges are particularly vexing when one is involved in the work of communal leadership, or in one of the "caring" professions, responsible for the physical and/or spiritual well being of others. I am certain that my own experience, andthat of colleagues in the rabbinate, resonates with that of educators, layleaders, political leaders, physicians, and others. The urgent demands of the larger communal family threaten to overtake those of ones' own, and many fail to find a point of balance. Abraham was perhaps the first, but by no means the only, Jewish leader to nearly sacrifice his children in the process of promoting the Jewish tradition.

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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.