By Rabbi Robert B. Barr
Note: This story makes reference to the Sodom and Gomorrah story that can be found in Genesis chapter 18, beginning in verse 16. You can find it online here.
A story that we have explored on Rosh Hashanah is the story of Abraham at Sodom and Gomorrah. Here’s the basic outline:
1. God wants to punish the people of Sodom and Gomorrah
2. Abraham bargains with God asking if God will wipe out all the people even if there are innocent people there
3. God agrees not to destroy the cities if there are ten righteous people there
4. Two messengers go to Sodom to warn Lot and his family to leave before the destruction
There are several reasons that this story seems like a good one to tell on Rosh Hashanah. First, like the Binding of Isaac it includes Abraham – the mythic father of our people. Both stories also include innocent bystanders (namely Isaac in Genesis 22 and the few righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah). Likewise, both legends include God as representative of ultimate authority and power. Finally, both stories are about God making a decision and Abraham reacting.
However, in the Sodom and Gomorrah story (unlike in the Binding of Isaac) Abraham says that he must rely not on an external notion of right and wrong (namely God); rather Abraham is governed by his conscience – his own knowledge of right and wrong.
Indeed, in the Sodom and Gomorrah story, Abraham risks God’s wrath and punishment. Certainly, Abraham cannot anticipate how God will respond, and yet the hero is willing to stand up for what he believes to be right. Abraham stands up for those who do not know that they needed to be defended. Abraham stands up to power and authority, declaring that justice is not being served. The mythic father of Judaism tries to stop the destruction – tries to stop people being killed – tries to find a better alternative.
The lesson of the Sodom and Gomorrah story is that we need to take a stand. We need to be active in the face of authority, and we must question. Our ultimate religious responsibility is not unthinking obedience, but deeply held personal convictions on which we are willing to make decisions and act. Our religious posture should not be one of silent piety, but rather it should be one of active engagement. We need to engage in our world in ways that change the world around us, at least on a local level.
At the beginning of the New Year – and always – we need to not encourage blind obedience, but rather to encourage a sense of responsibility for one’s actions. Following orders is not acceptable. Instead, we must think, we must question leadership, we must be willing to risk everything for the sake of justice.
May we have the strength, integrity, and courage to act in a manner that each year – as we review the stories of our own lives – we are proud of what we have stood for, what we have stood against, and how we have acted.