Friday, August 14, 2020

The Paradox of Power

 God didn’t know what to do. He wanted to destroy Sodom because of its wickedness. But ever since that flood he was second-guessing himself. God vowed he would never again curse the ground. But Sodom was really bugging him. He knew he had to do something. Maybe a targeted hit, just one city? “Shall I tell Abraham what I am about to do?”

God told Abraham his plans to blow up Sodom, and Abraham went to work. “What if you should find 40 innocent people there?” Abraham asked. “Wouldn’t it be wrong to punish the innocent and the guilty alike? Should not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” God was swayed by Abraham’s argument. “Fine,” God said, “if I find 40 innocent people, I will spare the whole city.”

But Abraham wasn’t done. “What if there are 30? 20? 10? Will you not spare the whole place for the sake of the ten?”

“Fine,” God relented, “I will spare the whole city for the sake of the ten.”

Look what just happened. In the most remarkable story in the book of Genesis, (and that’s saying something), Abraham models for us one of the core values of Judaism – that justice is a higher truth than power, and that we, as human beings, are morally obligated to intervene when justice is endangered, even if the source of the danger is God himself. It is not blind obedience God longs for – it is our awakening to a sense of moral responsibility. By speaking truth to power Abraham demonstrates that we are made in God’s image and must, therefore, join in the project of the furtherance of justice. Abraham is the first lawyer, arguing a pro bono case for his clients, the hypothetical innocent of Sodom. His willingness to wield the tools of reason, language, and persuasion to change God’s mind shows us how powerful we can be and must become.

In a later story, God asks Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Now, with the stakes so personally high, Abraham is oddly compliant. “Sure,” he says, “no problem.” Abraham sets out to complete the grisly task and is, at the last second, stopped by the angel Gabriel. “That was only a test,” said Gabriel, “we wanted to see if you had it in you.” Apparently Abraham did.

So which is it? Which Abraham should we be? Should we challenge authority in a struggle to co-create justice? Or when given an order, dutifully comply?

The answer lies, as it so often does, somewhere in the middle. In the paradox of Abraham our lives meander like streams around hard boulders and through soft meadows in turn, toward a sea beyond our reckoning. Reason isn’t the only tool in the box. We never have enough information. And we’re not as smart as we think we are. Sometimes we have to trust. Real empowerment has nothing to do with rigidity. It’s about fluidity in the face of obstacles, and the willingness to assert and acquiesce in turns.

In the wisdom of Judaism, we are morally obligated to participate in the healing of the world – tikkun olam. But it is also true that we are not in charge. COVID-19 taught us that. At best we can, and we must, join together to wield every tool – reason, science, and assertion, as well as empathy, sacrifice, and surrender. Only then does the best of all possible worlds begin to rise into view.

[A version of this piece first appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the September/October edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]