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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Abraham and the Lesson of Compassion

In Parashat Veyera, God is faced with a dilemma: should he share with Abraham, his appointed prophet who will pass his word down through the generations, his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. God decides to bring Abraham into his inner circle and shares his outrage at the actions of the Sodomites and his intention to act against them if his worst fears about all that is happening in the city are true.

Abraham’s response is stunning in its directness and its beauty. He asks: “Ha-af tispeh tzadik im-rasha - will you sweep away the righteous with the guilty?” While Abraham recognizes the crimes of Sodom, he also displays intense compassion towards the city, deeply hoping that there will be just ten righteous people worth saving. In Rabbinic Jewish understanding, God and the Creator’s control of the universe can be understood in the subtle interplay between two primary attributes of God, mercy and justice. Abraham’s challenge to God, his reminder to God, is that He is never only one or the other, perpetually and infinitely seeking justice and showing mercy. Abraham challenges God to stand in front of the Creator of All Things and reminds him that he is all things at all times.

This week, I participated in several study sessions. Nearly all of them touched on this lesson, of knowing that there are righteous in every place and the need to find compassion. In one of these study sessions, a mentor and teacher who I greatly admire reminded us that just three Shabbats prior we were reminded that we, all human beings, are created b’tzelem elohim: in the image of God. I will admit that, at first, I did not want to hear it. Through the tempest of emotions swirling in the past weeks, I could not do what was asked of me, I could not locate that compassion that is usually close at hand within me.

I found myself asking: why must I be forced to remember that we are all created in the image of God? Why must I see the tzelem Elohim in others when they do not see it in me? I look around at everything going on and I see the dehumanization of my People, the utter rejection that yes, also the Jews, are created b’tzelem Elohim. There have been hours in which #HitlerWasRight was shared tens of thousands of times on social media, signs at demonstrations calling to cast Jews into the trash can “where we belong”, and other horrific examples of anti-Jewish hatred. I am not sure what to do with this hatred? Why, how can it be expected from me to recognize in others what they refuse to see in me?

I am exhausted. This world, the situation that has befallen us is exhausting. The hate that has shown itself in its horrible, most full form, is exhausting.

It was one of my classmates that answered my question so simply, so clearly, that helped me back to the ways of Abraham, the path of compassion. She said, “we must continue to recognize the image of the divine in the Other, so that we may continue to see the divine in ourselves.”

The great challenge that this parasha has presented for me is that we are asked try to rise to the divine that has been created within all of us, to try to do what only God truly has the ability to do: to balance justice and mercy, to hold both of these values in equal measure at all times. I can know that justice is being done, that my nation and my People are waging a just war, even if war is by nature horrific and destructive. I can also know that mercy, at every possible turn, must be shown because the people on the other side are also created in the image of God. And I know that I am commanded to do this, and must do this, even when so many around the world are unwilling to do the same for me.

It is an exhausting proposition, even as I write it. I know that I will not always succeed, but I know that I must attempt it as it is the right thing to do. If Abraham has the daring, the chutzpah, to challenge God’s divine plan, I know that we must be daring as well.

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