You could not have scripted a better scenario. Avraham was missioned to preach a new religion to a confused world. He spoke of a “one God” who alone created diversity and dichotomy. He also spoke of a God who was moral and compassionate rather than angry and hostile. Reversing 2,000 years of errant religious thought was demanding, and progress was gradual.
Having vanquished four powerful chieftains, Avraham hits the “jackpot.” For over a decade the world had been immersed in a bloody political struggle that finally erupted into a worldwide war. Chances for peace seemed remote, as an alliance of four ferocious warlords terrorized the region. Courageously, Avraham intercedes, rescuing his nephew from captivity and ending the violence. As was prophesied, Avraham has now become an internationally acclaimed agent of human welfare. He has now provided “bracha” for humanity, securing both their lives and their safety. In the wake of his heroism, Avraham’s popularity is at an all-time high. Possessing extraordinary influence, he has the rare opportunity to immediately inspire thousands toward faith and belief.
Not only has Avraham become an “influencer,” but he also possesses legal claim to the citizens of Sedom, whom he protected from certain death. Ancient war protocols dictated that these rescued people were now indebted to serve Avraham as their lord. This ancient “right” was implied by the king of Sedom, who desperately pleaded with Avraham for the reparation of his subjects back to his kingdom. In exchange for his people, who Avraham had legal rights to, he offers Avraham all the riches he desires. Here is Avraham’s opportunity. An entire population can be converted to monotheism. Moreover, these people reside in the corrupt and wicked city of Sedom. Soon they will be buried alive under a blitz of sulphuric fire. Avraham is gift-wrapped an opportunity not just to sway people to his new religion but to rescue them from fiery death. Here is the chance he has been waiting for.
Yet, for some strange reason, Avraham flinches. Refusing to demand the transfer of the rescued citizens of Sedom, he also defers any monetary reward. Emphatically, he raises his hand to heaven and declares that he will not demand even a “string or a shoelace.” His bold decision is so stunning and unexpected that even Chazal question his behavior. The Gemara in Nedarim records that our exile to Egypt was, in part, a punishment for Avraham’s mistake in declining the opportunity to convert the wayward citizens of Sedom. What was on Avraham’s mind as he passed up on this gift-wrapped opportunity?
Avraham faced an intriguing but complex dilemma. He aspired to launch a new religion and draw the world away from its pagan lifestyle. Part of his message, though, was of a moral God who expected human beings to behave compassionately and morally. Living in a violent world of bloodshed and torture, Avraham offered something different: justice, morality, honor and charity. Though the first book of the Torah is called Bereishit or Genesis, Chazal referred to it as the book of “yesharim,” or kind people. Our ancestors modeled a new way of behavior: kind-heartedness, integrity and honesty. Snatching the citizens of Sedom—just because he could—would have compromised Avraham’s revolution. Perhaps the numbers of believers would have increased, but this growth of monotheism would have been accomplished through greed and selfishness. In demanding the surrender of an entire population, Avraham would be no different from other warlords who levied their cruel demands upon innocent civilians. The prospect of constructing a new religious mindset upon selfish or immoral behavior is unfathomable. Avraham cannot behave as a rapacious mercenary. The conversion of the heathens would have to wait. The foundation of religion is moral conscience, and it is inconceivable to launch a religious revolution by “seizing” human beings.
Perhaps Avraham’s moral calculus was mistaken. The Gemara’s explicit critique of his decision indicates as much. Perhaps he should have opted for rescuing these citizens from further moral depravity and ultimately from an apocalyptic death. Perhaps their situation was so dire that forceful measures would be justified. However, Avraham’s moral deliberation is understandable and justifiable. He faces a real dilemma for which there is no obvious solution. Can he advance religion through morally aggressive behavior? Shouldn’t he himself model the generosity and charity that he had uncovered in Hashem?
Avraham’s dilemma reinforces the vital role of moral behavior within religious identity. The Gemara in Shabbat records the Heavenly accounting to which we will all be summoned in the next life. The first question we are asked is whether we conducted ourselves with honesty and integrity. Without that baseline of moral and compassionate behavior, our ritual and ceremony rings with hypocrisy. For hundreds of years the prophets of the First Temple era railed against the pretense of religious piety absent of moral consideration. The Mikdash was filled with sacrifices and ceremony, but society at large was devoid of conscience and compassion. The high cannot stand without the low. If the foundation is flimsy the tower will fall. Avraham struggled with the prospect of constructing Judaism through a “population grab.”
Not only was such a decision morally questionable, it may also have backfired. Every human being possesses an inner compass that calibrates an innate sense of right and wrong. If people associate religion or religious people with immoral behavior, they tend to become alienated from religion. How successful would Avraham have been—long-term—if his religious entourage was assembled through coercion? Rav Kook wrote extensively about the repellent effect of religion perceived as immoral. He believed—at least in his generation—that the large exodus from religion was caused by dissatisfaction with alleged immoral components of religion. Much of this is still true in our era.
Sadly, religious people and religious communities haven’t always sufficiently rallied around moral causes. Often, this is a product of non-religious communities adopting social justice movements and moral causes. Too often, these causes or agendas become associated with non-religious communities. In response, and seeking to distance themselves from non-religious Jewish identity, religious Jews tend to cede moral platforms to others. Regrettably, moral causes and sometimes even concern for personal moral conduct are perceived as the exclusive domain of the non-religious.
In Israel, religious communities have sometimes surrendered moral platforms because they are associated with left-wing secular parties, which are generally hostile to religious agendas. Secular organizations in Israel have long championed social justice and social welfare movements. Ceding these agendas, religious parties have, by and large, focused upon parochial religious issues or upon settling the Land of Israel. Given the political polarities in Israel, this dichotomy between secular “moral” populations and “morally apathetic” religious communities has become extremely radicalized. Though much of this stereotype is based on false perceptions, at least some of it is true. Religious communities aren’t always sufficiently attendant to moral issues—whether social or personal.
Avraham’s dilemma still challenges his descendants.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.