Abraham Learning God’s Justice
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
How did Abraham know what God’s justice was, prior to God’s communication with him? As he had yet, no Torah or any communication with God, by what means did Abraham arrive at a true understanding of God’s will? God said “Will I keep hidden from Abraham what I will do to Sodom?” Of what knowledge was Abraham bereft, which couldn’t acquire on his own, and what was it in God’s words, which introduced Abraham to new concepts?
Without the Torah, Abraham first posited that there is a Cause for all existences. The sciences, which relentlessly guide the spheres and all matter, were all too well organized, catering precisely to the world’s daily needs, that it should exist without a Designer. There is a God. One initial Cause. Monotheism.
Abraham saw man as part of creation. He concluded: man is not merely to live his life without self-guidance, drifting aimlessly with no purpose. The existence of man’s mark of distinction—his mind—taught Abraham that the Creator desired man to engage this very faculty. It was given only to man, and thus, it must be God’s will that the mind is to be used by man, above all other faculties. Therefore, Abraham thought into all matters. Essentially, Abraham thought, “How does this Creator desire I live my life?”
Abraham understood that the primary acknowledgement of man’s thinking must be his complete understanding and embrace of monotheism. To this end, Abraham debated with many individuals and proved through rational arguments that ditheism and atheism are false notions.
Once Abraham understood the pursuit of wisdom as God’s wish for man, Abraham pondered many aspects of the world. They included natural law, philosophy, and laws of government. Abraham thought, “As God desires many men to populate the world, and all men have the goal of learning, all mankind must work together to ensure a safe haven geared towards that goal of obtaining wisdom. Therefore, moral codes must be followed, i.e., man must ensure another’s pursuit of the good.”
As Abraham proceeded to teach his neighbors, God desired that Abraham have the correct ideas. Abraham was able to understand a great amount on his own, but many ideas would go unrealized without Divine intervention.
This brings us to God’s statement, “Will I keep hidden from Abraham...” God therefore introduced some new idea to Abraham. But what was it? God spoke very few words. He said, (Gen. 18:20):
“The cry of Sodom and Amora is great and their sin is greatly heavy. I (God) will go down and see if in accordance with their cry they do, and I will destroy them, or not, I will know.”
In these words alone was a new lesson to Abraham. (It is essential when learning to isolate wherein lays the answer.) Upon this prophecy, Abraham thought, “God knows whether they deserve to be destroyed, He knows all, so he knows their sin. However, God is saying that there are two possibilities here, destroying Sodom, or sparing them.” Abraham then responded:
“Will you wipe out these cities if there are 50 righteous souls there? It is mundane that You should kill a righteous person with a wicked, and the righteous will suffer the same as the wicked, the Judge of the entire world won’t do justice?!” God then responds, “If find 50 righteous in the midst of the city, I will spare the entire place for their sake.”
What did Abraham ask, and what did God respond? Abraham made a few statements, but one was not a question. When Abraham said,“It is mundane that You should kill a righteous person with a wicked, and the righteous will suffer the same as the wicked, the Judge of the entire world won’t do justice?!”, he was not asking, but rather, he was stating fact, “This is not how You work”. Abraham repeats the concept of justice in that passage, teaching us that he was only talking about justice. Abraham had no question on this: a righteous person should live, and a wicked person should die. Justice demands this; God won’t operate otherwise. What Abraham was asking on was “tzedaka”, charity, i.e., whether God would save even the wicked, if enough righteous people were present in the city. And this is precisely what God answered Abraham:
“If I find 50 righteous in the midst of the city, I will spare the entire place for their sake”.
The question is, from where did Abraham obtain this idea, that God would not only work with justice, but He would engage traits over and above pure justice, something we would call charity, or tzedaka?
Abraham realized this idea from God’s few words, “I (God) will go down and see if in accordance with their cry they do, and I will destroy them, or not…” God said there was an option: although God knew Sodom and Amora were sinful, and He knew the exact measure of their sin, nonetheless, there was an option regarding their fate. Abraham deduced from God’s words that there are criteria, other than the sinners’ own flaws, which God views to evaluate the sinners’ fate. This is precisely what God intended Abraham to learn. This is not something a person can determine from his studies. And since Abraham was to be a “mighty nation”, and that he was going to “teach his household to keep the ways of God” (Gen. 18:18-19), Abraham needed to be instructed in those ways. (We learn that God teaches man through engaging his mind, and not simply spelling out the idea. God made Abraham use his reasoning to learn the concept.)
What does is this idea, that God will spare even the wicked, provided righteous people are present? I believe it teaches us that God will tolerate the wicked, provided there are proper influences with the potential to change the wicked. In such a case, the wicked are not doomed to a failed existence, not yet, provided a possible cure is close at hand. This teaches us the extent to which God endures sinners. “…do I desire the death of the wicked? Rather, in the repentance of the wicked and that he lives. Repent, repent from your evil ways, and why shall you die, house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11)
We also see earlier that God desires Abraham to know both charity and justice, (Gen. 18:19) “...and he will keep to God’s ways to do charity and justice.”
What is the difference between charity and justice, and why is charity so essential, that God made certain Abraham possessed this concept? Justice, we understand, is necessary for any society to operate. Deterrents must exist to prevent people from expressing their aggression and destroying society. Where does tzedaka come in? I believe tzedaka is necessary for the individual, as opposed to justice, which is for the society. If there is injustice, it must be corrected so a society may continue. But what if a person has endured a tortured existence, now facing penalties from a justice system, which treats him equal to all others, with no consideration for the unique side effects affecting him, resultant from pure, strict justice? Won’t this person have the potential to break at some point? He may even commit suicide. Without tzedaka, charity, one may feel that his specific situation is not recognized. Feelings of persecution and victimization may lead him to self-destruction.
It is man’s nature when things go bad, to close in on himself, feeling that a streak of misery is upon him. This feeling strips him from all hope. He eventually feels alienated from society at large which seems to be “doing fine,” and the “why me” attitude sets in. He begins a downward spiral. Without another person showing him pity, and a desire to assist, he may be doomed.
This is where I feel tzedaka plays a vital role in society. If we are to ensure the well being of society with the aforementioned goal of securing mankind’s haven for intellectual pursuits, we need to recognize and insure the presence of more than justice alone. We must also recognize that man needs individual attention in the form of sympathy, empathy, care, hospitality, generosity, and all other forms. The fortunate among us must also initiate such care, and not wait until the fallen person calls out, for it might be too late, and he never calls out, but ends matters drastically. For this reason, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) teaches, that giving tzedaka is not simply giving money. We are obligated to commiserate with the unfortunate soul. The uplifting of his countenance is the goal, and money is only one item through which we accomplish this goal. Maimonides states that the highest level of man is when he is concerned with his fellow man.
Man’s nature is that he needs to be recognized as an individual. Without this recognition, man feels no integrity, and will not move on with his life. Therefore, tzedaka is essential to a society’s laws. Justice and charity must go hand in hand. Justice serves the society, while charity addresses the individual. Both are essential.