Who is most compassionate? Every political candidate who ran this week has been eager to demonstrate their compassion. Ultimately, they are going to be judged by how much they are able to accomplish. Our forefathers from the narratives we read in the coming weeks are no different.
I like to associate this week's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah with Abraham's "interaction" with God before and after. We are told Abraham arose early and returned to the place he had negotiated with God, as the origin of Shacharit---our morning prayer service. In all his consternation, what did he do? He went to pray. Seeing the smoke rising from the burning cities, he realized it was too late for prayer. Can you imagine his angst as the pillar of ash arose in the sky?
Abraham's experiences are myriad. He stood up for his son Ishmael-he became VERY upset about Sarah's demand that he drive out Hagar and the boy-but God admonished him to back down and listen to Sarah. He stood up for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah-to no avail. Perhaps he felt that God didn't really value his compassion---so dulled with this sensitivity he marched silently for three days with Isaac, raised his knife, and ultimately heard a "voice from God," which allows him not to kill his son.
Do I have sympathy for Abraham? What could he have done differently? Think of the surgeon who reports the operation was a success, though the patient died. At least he did try! Our sages have not been so generous with our father Abraham. The Zohar has a remarkable take on the passage where Abraham challenges the justice of God's plan to wipe out the cities. It begins with Rabbi Yehudah lavishly praising Abraham, who shines in contrast to Noah who had silently acceded to God's plan to flood the earth. The question is asked--who has ever seen a "father" as compassionate as Abraham. Rabbi Yehuda misses something. In the end, Abraham is not fully compassionate; he is troubled by the injustice of a God who judges the wicked and righteous alike.
We next encounter Rabbi El'azar in the Zohar who says "Even Abraham did not act perfectly... he did not culminate since he did not plead for mercy unconditionally." What did he mean? Abraham said "I don't want to claim reward for my deeds." Abraham seemed to only care if there were innocent people in Sodom-as for the guilty, he did not care. Contrast that to Moses who asked for forgiveness for all--even the ones who built the Golden Calf.
The Zohar sees justice as being concomitant for God and humanity. It is a given that mercy supersedes justice. Abraham should have pleaded for all. Even today we see our rituals reflecting this prioritization: mercy from the right, over justice from the left. We blow the shofar from the right side of the mouth, we wash the right hand first, we leave the right strap of the head tefillin longer than the left and so on.
Our sages concurred that mercy is the greatest of all religious achievements. Abraham is universally accepted for Hesed, or mercy, even though he seems to fall short of it several times in our parsha. As I noted in the beginning we can read the Abraham cycle as a lesson in moral development. He is pushed back and forth and comes very close to losing the most fundamental form of compassion-of a parent for their child. Next week we will see his "chesed shel emet" doing a deed and not expecting any thanks or compensation as he arranges Sarah's burial place and attend to Isaac's marriage.
Compassion is insufficient when it is just a feeling of empathy. True compassion relates to the horrific realities of loss and destruction, and then carries on. In the face of destruction, we too must find the resolve to act effectively and assist others in their time of need.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham