Friday, October 24, 2014

Chutzpah Toward the Heavens (Portion Lech L'chah)

In our tradition, arguing with God is not just acceptable; sometimes—especially when justice is on the line—it is essential.

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, God tells Abraham, “Walk in My ways and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1).  The language here is strikingly similar to the description of Noah that we read last week: “Noah. . . was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.”

For the Rabbis, such parallels beg for commentary, inviting a critical comparison between these two biblical patriarchs.  While Noah and Abraham are both depicted as righteous, the Rabbis’ closer reading of the text argues for Abraham’s moral superiority.  They point out that while Noah’s blamelessness is qualified by the term “in his age” (as I discussed here last week), God’s words for Abraham are unqualified.  Furthermore, while Noah walks with God (et ha-Elohim), God commands Abraham to walk ahead of the Divine Presence (hithalech l’fanai).  Noah is present with God, step by step—but Abraham actually takes the lead, with God’s blessing.

This difference in “walking” is borne out in Noah and Abraham’s actions in times of crisis.  When God tells Noah about the coming deluge, Noah does as he is told and builds the ark.  He saves himself, his family, and the selected pairs of animals, but does not protest on behalf of the rest of humanity.  By contrast, when God informs Abraham of the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham steps up and argues on behalf of their citizens: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty. . . Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

We Jews are the children of Abraham, not Noah.  It is not enough for us to walk with God; God sometimes asks us to take the lead. Our calling is to live with chutzpah, to challenge authority—even God’s authority—in the face of injustice.   For all too often, accepting the status quo means acquiescing to bigotry.  As Elie Wiesel reminds us, “We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”  To be a Jew is to break the silence that breeds persecution and fear—even when that silence seems to start with God.

No comments: