Vayera — Saving the Innocent??

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Sometimes when I study the parsha, it leads me in a direction that feels not just "politically incorrect" to me, but troubling.  This is one of those weeks.

This week’s parsha, Vayera, contains one of my favorite stories in the entire Torah: Abraham arguing with God on behalf of the people of Sodom.  Probably his finest moment in my book.  Much more morally impressive than his silent acquiescence to the binding of his son Isaac on the altar.

He bargains with God.  He suggests it would not be in keeping with God’s righteousness to do what he God was going to do, to wipe out a city.

All that is great.  But where my troubling musings start is with questioning "OK, so who was Abraham arguing for ?"

Genesis 18:24 says "Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous?" Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 12th century French commentator) notes that it doesn’t say "save people of the place for the sake of the fifty righteous."  It says "save the place."  Radak says that everyone gets judged on their own merits — wicked people will be destroyed, the righteous people won’t be punished personally in a physical way — but if the place is destroyed even if the righteous people survive, their homes will have been destroyed.  So Radak says what Abraham was arguing for was in essence God should use something like a "targeted neutron bomb" that would kill the wicked people, but leave the righteous people — and the physical place — unharmed.

So Radak says Abraham was arguing strictly for the sake of physical place.  Not an interpretation that particularly appeals to me — I think it likelier that the righteous people WOULD have suffered — we know righteous people sometimes suffer — and they would in esssence have been "collateral damage" in God’s strike on Sodom.  When God brings an earthquake, it doesn’t just destroy the houses of the sinners, any more than when it rains in Israel it only rains on the fields of righteous people.

But if we read the text carefully, the very next verse, 18:25 reads "Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?"

And this brings me to the politically incorrent and troubling part of my musings on this week’s parsha.  Why doesn’t Abraham ask that the city be saved for the sake of the women and children that are in the city?

This happens to be very timely.  I’m currently visiting family in Denver, Colorado.  In this morning’s Denver Post, on page 2a, is an article "No power, little food in Gaza."  The article describes the Israeli siege of Gaza.  After an outbreak of violence, Israel stopped allowing fuel in for Gaza’s power station, so the lights are out, and food supplies are running low.

There’s a quote that asks of the Israeli government more or less the same question I’m asking of Abraham:

"This is a crime against innocent civilians," said Ziad Abu Khousa, 23, who wondered how he and other students at Gaza City’s Islamic University could study for midterm exams without lighting.  "Half the population of Gaza are women and children, and they have nothing to do with the fighting."

So why doesn’t Abraham make that same argument?  Why doesn’t he ask God about the women and children who presumably have nothing to do with the sins of the men?

So here’s the politicaly incorrect part.  Is it true that the women and children have nothing to do with fighting (in Gaza) or with the sinning (in Sodom).  If the women provide moral and logistical support to the men who are fighting — feeding them, nourishing the bodies and their spirits — aren’t they accessories?  Don’t they share the guilt?

And what about the children?  But if the children of wicked people are indoctrinated in wickedness — if the children are taught that Jews should be killed, if they celebrate succesful martyrdom missions (suicide attacks on Jews), if they cheer on 9/11 — don’t they become a danger to peace and security?

Like I said, it’s a troubling idea.  But if I look at the Palestinian situation, I am totally prepared to stand up and speak out for the rights of the Palestinians living in the West Bank.  They didn’t vote for Hamas, they don’t in any large scale launch attacks on Israel.  Israel has a responsibility to conduct the occupation in the West Bank (may it be over quickly) in a proper way with concern for the local’s humanitarian rights.  But the Palestinians in Gaza, with their support for the Hamas government which launches missiles against Israel, have declared war on Israel.  And a siege is a very standard instrument of war, and it has been since biblical days.  They want the siege to end, they need to stop shooting missiles at Sderot and Ashkelon.  When in history has a country under attack provided supplies to the enemy?  Would the United States have sent food to Germany before the Nazis surrendered?

I’m not sure whether or not the siege in Gaza will be effective, and whether or not it will accomplish Israel’s goals.  But even though I consider myself a human rights activist, I’m not sure the siege in Gaza is a human rights violation either. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav Barry

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One thought on “Vayera — Saving the Innocent??

  • November 17, 2008 at 4:53 pm
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    Rabbi Barry,
    I followed the link you posted on Baka Diary and have very much enjoyed your commentary.

    Allow me to disagree, though. On an interpretation level, first; I trust you will be open to a torah discussion with a Muslim! :). You justify the punishment of Gaza’s women and children – and men, too! – as being “the moral and logistical support” and the children being “indoctrinated in wickedness”. Very well. But this is but an assumption. And to go back to the Sodom story – are you suggesting that the fifty righteous were the ‘moral and logistical support’ for the sinners? Making food, or mending shoes for the bad guy does not make you one. Would that be the Divine moral justification for wiping out the town? That whoever nearby, no matter how righteous, had to be somehow wicked by association? Are the fifty righteous to blame because they did not attempt to bring their neighbours to God? Even if they should have and have failed that task – they surely aren’t on par with the sinners. Are they?

    And my second disagreement would refer to the particular Gaza situation. And I disagree with your justification of collective punishment of innocent people by ‘wickedness by proximity’. There is a rationale why Men have developed the rules of war. Why various international conventions – Geneva, ICRC, etc… – you consider yourself a humanitarian activist; I surely need not to remind you of the concept. By extrapolating your rationale, does that mean that Hiroshima and Nagazaki would be justifiable, and their inhabitants were guilty of ‘moral support’ to the Japanese Army?

    Finally, allow me to introduce a small precision regarding votes. Gaza was taken over in a coup. A coup that was staged by Hamas – which happens to have won elections but was ousted by the western-backed Fatah. Does that make Gazans evil?

    The siege is a human rights violation, Rabbi. In the name of the humane values that we share, I urge you to acknowledge that.

    Reply

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