Of the biblical figures we are acquainted with, the personality of Abraham is certainly among the most complex. In this week’s Torah portion we are presented with two narratives of events in the life of Abraham, each yielding a radically different portrait of the patriarch.
Near the beginning of the portion (Genesis 18:16 ff.), the Torah recounts the events surrounding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is shocked to learn that God plans to sweep away the innocent along with the guilty. In an increasingly confident tone, Abraham first suggests, then asserts, and finally demands, that “the Judge of all the earth [must] deal justly!” (Genesis 18:25)
Unlike Noah, who numbly accepted the proclamation of the Flood and set about to fulfill the necessary requirements to save himself and his family, Abraham rejects the decree of destruction, perhaps even at risk to his own life. Contemporary Jews resonate to this Abraham; we see in his confrontation with God an anticipation of our own struggles to reconcile those actions and attitudes of our tradition which seem in conflict with our sense of moral balance and ethical imperative.
But then we read: “Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him: ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…. So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac” (Genesis 22:1-3).
Here, we long for the Abraham of Sodom; we want him to turn to God and say, “How can you ask such a thing? Shall not the Parent of all the earth act compassionately?” For contemporary Jews, this Abraham of silent submission and of compliant collusion does not seem quite so attractive.
Although only the Binding of Isaac is called a test, perhaps in fact both events are tests of Abraham’s character. By not hiding the pending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God put Abraham to the test: Would he watch from a distance, secure and safe, as the cities were destroyed? Or would he challenge the injustice about to be perpetuated?
Perhaps biblical and rabbinic tradition preserved these two accounts of Abraham in order that they be available as needed for Jews throughout different periods of Jewish history. Under conditions of security and of Jewish power we have the luxury of moral indignation and the opportunity to challenge the ways of God.
Under circumstances of oppression and Jewish powerlessness, the necessity of tolerating, if not accepting, persecution may have been supported by appeals to the perseverance of Abraham’s faith even in the face of the most terrifying challenges.
The Torah offers us a gift, albeit a problematic one: a reminder that within each of us lies the potential for courage as well as complacency in the face of suffering, injustice, and evil. Our challenges, we may hope, will not be as dramatic as those faced by Abraham. But when put to the test, how will we respond?