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Dvar Torah by Ayal Robkin

Ayal Robkin (Cohort 11) is in his 2nd year of teaching at Chicagoland Jewish High School in Deerfield, IL.

I was recently on the unfortunate receiving end of a few extra visitors in my classroom: my students' camp friends. Barring the disruption that predictably ensued, I encountered a much greater nuisance. My visitors only caught a small glimpse of my larger unit, one that had deep implications as to how we view God. Assuming that in one fell swoop I may have done some irrevocable damage (probably not true and a little self-aggrandizing), I ran after one of my visitors at the end of the day and attempted a little damage control. Understanding things without the framework of a larger context has potentially drastic consequences. 

Through this lens, I recently reencountered two of the potentially most important episodes in the Torah: Sedom v'Amorah and the Akeda. Taken alone, each text presents completely different pictures of how the character of Avraham relates to God. In Sedom v'Amora we find Avraham coming to question God's actions: ''Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" (Genesis 18:23) Avraham seemingly brings to the table a sense of morality external to that of God. Through this he questions God's actions of potentially destroying an entire people. Where could he have arrived at this sense of morality but from his own moral intuition? We have no Biblical record of moral revelation prior to this story. Yet, Avraham, the father of our forefathers, the character through which we define so many of our actions as Jews, questions God through his own understanding of the world. 

The Avraham we find in the Akeda contrasts vividly to the Avraham of Sedom v’Amora. Following God's command to ''Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of," (Genesis 22:2) we don't witness Avraham contesting God's intentions. We don't see him bring his own value system to the situation: no argumentation, pure acceptance. He listens to God's command and immediately begins performing it. Moreover, and without any exegetical reading of the text, he is fully willing to go through with the act of killing his son. People have often questioned, ironically just as Avraham questioned God at Sedom v'Amora, the Avraham who is ready and willing to sacrifice his son. Taken alone, this text is perhaps the most controversial text in Tanach. People often use the text to represent the idea that one might come to do something 'wrong' just because God said so. This runs antithetically to our modern sensibilities, ones that witness regularly the atrocities brought upon the world in the name of religion. 

But, I find the story of the Akeda taken together with the full character of Avraham significantly less troubling. By the time the text arrives at the Akeda narrative, Avraham has battled five Kings and won. He has challenged God in a battle of morality and lost. He has witnessed the birth of a miraculous child promised to him by God. Avraham had the fortune to experience not a God of faith but a God of knowledge. By our own definition, this God does not exist in a modern world. We refer to this as hester panim (the idea that God's 'face' is hidden), olam keminhago noheg (Judaism's version of the clockmaker's theory) or hakol b'yidei Shamayim chutz m'yirat Shamayim (everything is controlled by God except for fear in God). By living in faith and not in knowledge of God, we exist in a world much more closely related to that of Sedom v'Amora than that of the Akeda. We can only hope to one day benefit living knowledgeably of God's existence while recognizing that in a faith based world, we must question for fear that maybe we understood God wrong. 

Avraham had no reason to question God at the Akeda for everything demanded of him had already been proven true. We, living as Sedom v'Amora Jews, must act like Avraham did when he finds out that God is willing to commit what he considers an atrocity. Sometimes we are forced to use our own sense of morality (yes, this morality can come from God as well) to understand the world and not solely rely on God. The beauty of the story of Sedom v’Amora is that, in the end, it is not Avraham acting; but rather, it is God.