For the sake of one

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi led Torah study yesterday. She focused on “the first thing Abraham did after becoming a Jew”: argue — and with God, no less, which she characterized as an essentially Jewish act.

Then Adonai said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before Adonai.

Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?

What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

And Adonai answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?”

And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.”

But he spoke to Him again, and said, “What if forty should be found there?”

And He answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the forty.”

And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?”

And He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

And he said, “I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if twenty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.”

And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.”

When Adonai had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.

My question was if this sequence didn’t imply an essentially liberal argument. She said, “first, you’ll need to define what you mean by ‘liberal’, and I found myself answering, almost as if the answer was being pulled from me: “For the sake of one.”

(The rabbi answered that in the ancient Jewish world, the closest thing to an individual was ten people, a minyan. There’s something in this idea, ten people as a fundamental unit, that I can feel is going to stay a live problem for me.)

After class several of us stayed in the room and talked. I pointed out a similarity between Abraham’s dialogue with Adonai and hostage negotiation as presented by George Kohlrieser in Hostage at the Table. 1) A hostage negotiator progresses in small steps, starting with any kind of response at all; 2) the goal is to move toward clarification of what truly matters to the hostage-taker, in order to find some way to appeal to it for the sake of a humane outcome; and 3) in the process to create an emotional bond and establish the negotiator as a “secure base”. It is interesting to see this newly established relationship between Adonai and Abraham starting with what can be viewed as a hostage negotiation creating a secure base of covenant.

It was a great Torah study.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh Jews were being gunned down by a right-wing antisemite who, after surrendering to police told them, “all these Jews need to die.”

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