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Vayera – Our Spiritual DNA

Throughout history wherever Jews have lived, they have been at the forefront of social reform promoting human rights and dignity for all. What is the source for our concern and involvement in the social arena? To find the answer, I believe we must go back in time to the founder of Judaism, אברהם אבינו, our forefather Avraham. 
We see his concern for others first show itself in last week’s parsha of לך-לך. Here we are told of his and Sarah’s outreach to others through their skills as teachers, “the souls they made in Haran.” Later in the same parsha, Avraham rescues his nephew, Lot, and the people of Sodom. Together with their king they had been captured in battle after enduring 13 years of oppression, looting, and kidnap by Amraphel, king of Shinar.
This week in parshat וירא, we are privy to eavesdrop on an intense conversation Avraham is having with God. He is pleading with the Almighty on behalf of the citizens of Sodom and four other cities. His cause is to stave off their pending destruction. 
The Torah reading this week makes very clear why we are allowed to overhear this dialogue between Hashem and Avraham. From the outset of this episode, God reveals to us why Avraham, in the first place, was informed of the desperate situation facing Sodom. God says, “Shall I conceal from Avraham what I do….For I have known him (‘loved him’ according to Rashi), because he commands his children and household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, doing charity and justice….” We are informed of this encounter between Hashem and Avraham because it is what we call in education, “a teachable moment.”
God was expecting Avraham to question the verdict of Sodom, to take up its cause, to fight for a stay of execution, to present mitigating circumstances on their behalf. In short, God was fully aware that not only would Avraham exhaust every argument humanly possible to save them but he would give over this mitzvah to his children as well. Why? 
Keep in mind these people were not his biological progeny nor were they following the 7 Noachide commands incumbent on all humanity to observe and follow. They were wicked no doubt about it. Yet as all people, they were, nonetheless, created in the “image of God.” By virtue of that one fact alone, Avraham could not stand idly by. This inherent endowment was enough to make them worthy of his intercession.
As standard bearers of the Torah, we are shown his example for two reasons. First of all, we are witnesses to this event so that we should model our own lives after that of our father Avraham. Last year I attended a two day seminar sponsored by CAJE, presented by the educational organization, “Facing History and Ourselves.” The key takeaway idea from their program was that we must teach people to become what they call an “up stander,” as opposed to remaining a “bystander.” By nature most people do not like confrontation, whether challenged about their own beliefs or actions or to challenge others about their beliefs and actions. We must be taught and trained how to effectively “stand up” against injustice whenever and where ever we see it. We cannot just remain observers.
As Jews, we know all too well the negative results of disinterested or even passive behavior toward social injustice. Like the rest of the Torah, this lesson from parshat וירא is not just an abstract lesson. It challenges us to be thoughtful and involved in human affairs wherever we live. This principle is every bit a part of Judaism as are any of its “religious” laws. Avraham was the world’s first “up stander” even challenging God. It is also crucial to note that Avraham was not a citizen of those five cities marked for destruction. How stark a difference was Avraham’s response in his time to that of Noach in his generation!
Secondly, as with every aspect of our Jewish way of life, we are expected to pass on this value and mode of behavior to our children. As demonstrated by our patriarch Avraham, this responsibility is accomplished not only by word but by performance as well. 
It is no wonder then that Jews, as biological and philosophical descendants of Avraham, have always been at the forefront of championing for human rights and dignity for all people. Simply put, it is part of our spiritual DNA. 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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