November 1, 2012
Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
He had only God’s endorsement. Otherwise, this newly chosen leader of the world was a virtual unknown. He didn’t campaign for very long; he suddenly appeared on the scene, going on to change the world.
Who was Abraham, and why was he chosen? What was the purpose behind choosing him to become God’s representative on Earth?
For starters, the world was quite a broken place when he stepped into his new leadership role. A quick review of past events leading to Abraham’s selection as a leader is in order.
From its very creation, the world was filled with problems. Temptations from a lowly serpent led to man’s disobedience of the law. Jealousy between brothers produced the world’s first homicide. Corruption at all levels of society brought about a devastating flood. The generation after the flood introduced cruel political power to the world, and Nimrod — the “first man of might on earth” (Genesis 10:8) — inspired his generation to pursue actions driven by selfish motives and self interests. “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top to the sky, to make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4), they said. The world lacked ethics, morals or any sense of communal help and cooperation.
For 10 generations, the world was a society lacking direction, vision or purpose. For 10 generations, the world was without an effective leader. For 10 long generations, according to Pirkei Avot, God patiently searched for a leader on Earth.
Suddenly, after 10 long generations of searching and waiting, God finally chooses a leader. What is remarkable about God’s choice is that, given the enormity of the task facing this new leader, we actually know very little about him. He has no prior experience in leadership, and the first 75 years of his life were lived in relative obscurity. We do know that he comes from a father who sold and worshipped idols, and because of that he chose to break away from his father at an early age. He lived for many years in search of his identity, wandering from place to place. He traveled in many circles — some good, some not so good — and all of these experiences in his life seemed to give God a solid indication that this man possessed the qualifications for leadership that seemed to matter most to God — vision, courage and moral character.
For any leader, the ultimate test of courage and leadership comes when he is faced with the challenge of speaking out on an issue, even if his words may not seem popular. Thus it was with Abraham, who, when faced with God’s potential destruction of Sodom, displayed what Abraham Joshua Heschel would call “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” In challenging God, Abraham says: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be 50 innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the 50 who are in it? It would be sacrilege even to ascribe such an act to You — to kill the innocent with the guilty, letting the righteous and the wicked fare alike. It would be sacrilege to ascribe this to You. Shall the whole world’s Judge not act justly?” (Genesis 18:23-25).
While many might find Abraham’s words shocking and disrespectful to God, it was exactly this type of response that God was looking for. Immediately preceding Abraham’s moral challenge is God’s personal reflection on Abraham and his purpose as a leader: “God said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of God, by doing what is just and right’ ” (in Hebrew: “…la’asot tzedakah u-mishpat”).
In this mission statement of Abraham’s purpose as a leader, God was seeking someone who would stand up for what was “just and right,” even on an unpopular issue like Sodom. The Netziv comments that Abraham’s greatest moment of ethical virtue and leadership was his willingness to argue on behalf of Sodom, “even though he hated their evil ways and their corrupt leadership, he nevertheless sought their good, as seeking good is the essence of the continuity of humanity.”
Abraham’s leadership was not about political slogans, one-liners or PR campaigns. After 10 generations that lacked leadership, and were characterized by corrupt behavior and selfish motives, Abraham brought God’s light to a world that was filled with darkness. He met with kings, participated in wars, brokered peace treaties, built economic strength for his community, all the while experiencing trials of faith and even personal challenges within his own family. His tenure of leadership — like all other leaders — was far from perfect, but in the end, the legacy of Abraham was certainly one that brought change to the world.
May our leaders be blessed with Abraham’s “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international organization with a campus in Jerusalem. To receive his weekly Torah Thoughts, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.