The Torah portion that I just read is Vayeira. This parsha contains several amazing stories—Sarah is told she will have a child, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt, Hagar is sent into the desert with her son where God shows them a well, and Abraham takes his son to be sacrificed as a burnt offering, but instead is given a ram to burn,
….and that’s only the well-known stories.
As you can imagine, it was rather hard for me to choose which story to talk about. In the end, I finally decided to talk about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this portion, Abraham tries to bargain with God. Abraham asks, will You pardon the city for the sake of ten righteous people, to which God agrees, “I will not destroy the city if I find ten righteous people.” Even though God agrees, God destroys the cities anyway.
Now, when I first read this, the question that came to my mind was this: Did God—One who is supposed to know what is right in all things—make a mistake? Was God about to let wicked people live by agreeing to do what Abraham asked and saving the cities? Another possibility is that God changed God’s mind—God agreed with Abraham and then went back on the promise. Was God persuaded by Abraham to save the cities, and then later decided to destroy the cities anyway? Either way, is this the just and all-knowing God of the Jews?
Kristina Olson, Rabbinical School Student, wrote a d’var on this parsha which was posted on “A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the Jewish Theological Seminary Community.” She makes the point that, although Abraham is bargaining with God, God is not bargaining with Abraham.
God was able to say “yes” when Abraham asked about ten righteous people because God knew that Lot his family numbered less than ten people, so God never changes God’s mind, like I originally thought—God knew all along that there were less than ten righteous people in the cities, so it was always God’s plan to destroy them. In fact, God knows all along that Lot and his family will be spared, so God knows that every righteous person in Sodom and Gomorra will be saved, and only the evil ones will die.
Which leaves us with a major question: How does God know that those people are evil, and maybe more importantly, what was it that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah did that was so bad they deserve the punishment of death?
Although this is a really intriguing question, nowhere in the Torah do we get a definite answer. I must have read through the English translation of my Torah portion five or six times just trying to figure out what the people of Sodom and Gomorrah did that was so bad it resulted in the destruction of entire cities, but at the end of it all, I was no closer to finding out.
We, as humans, really want to know that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah did something wrong because if people are punished arbitrarily for no reason at all, then we will always have a fear of being arbitrarily punished. How can we say with certainty that a person is either entirely righteous or entirely bad? (Or at least righteous enough to meet God’s conditions for not destroying the cities).
But maybe we need to take a step back…
By asking this question, we are looking at the world from a perspective of judging—this is a perspective where you want to know what the right and wrong are, and have solid and concrete definitions and consequences for each. But here’s the thing—humans can never know enough about others to be able to say for certain whether someone is good or bad. After all, who among us is perfect—neither you nor I are purely good or bad. The only things you can know about another person is what their words and their actions tell you. But, nowhere in the Torah are we told exactly what the people of Sodom and Gomorrah did, and the punishment it just doesn’t add up.
This leaves us with only one possibility—that God knows something that we as humans can never know. Because God knows things we can’t know, God is able to take the position of judging. We as humans can’t know what God knows. So, with the limited facts we have, what can we do?
Well, let us think about what Abraham did when faced with this dilemma. Abraham does not stop even for a second to consider what the people of Sodom and Gomorrah might have done wrong. Instead, he jumps straight into the decision of: these people must be saved. It is almost as if Abraham doesn’t care whether or not God is being just, he doesn’t care whether or not the people are good or bad. Abraham only uses God’s idea of “righteousness” as a bargaining chip—a way to have some leverage to save everybody. More importantly, Abraham is not solely concerned about the innocent people—he wants to save the wicked people too.
Abraham takes a position of compassion—a position that values everyone as an equal—it doesn’t matter what they’ve done or what they’re capable of, every life is valuable. If we want to be like Abraham, we can take the position of compassion—we can value everybody even if we don’t know whether or not they deserve help. To be righteous means helping because it is the right thing to do, not helping people because they deserve it. Because we humans can’t know everything about a person as God does, we are unable to judge justly. That leaves us with only one ethical option—we can take the position of compassion like Abraham.
So, if we take the position that God never changes God’s mind, and it was always God’s plan to destroy the cities, yet even knowing that, God still gives Abraham a chance to talk, we might wonder why this story is even in the Torah, seeing as Abraham loses the argument with God?
Perhaps this argument was never about winning or losing. Perhaps what really counts here is Abraham trying to save everyone—even those who are wicked. Perhaps what counts is the idea that everybody deserves to be saved.
I think this story is a test. God is testing Abraham to see if he is worthy to be the source of blessings for the Jewish people. Perhaps what happened to Sodom and Gomorra is not the most important part of this story—instead of trying to figure out what the people of Sodom and Gomorra did because we want to avoid it, I think we should focus on what Abraham did so we can do it—so we can follow in his footsteps by trying to help everybody. Instead of judging, we should instead try to be like Abraham and act with compassion.
Currently, I am struggling to understand what it means to be judged. I am autistic, and I am constantly being judged for my learning differences and ways I act that are kind of unusual. No one is judging me on whether I am good or bad, rather they are judging me as someone who is different from everyone else.
But really, this is just an excuse for people to talk about me while trying not to hurt my feelings. I am aware that people aren’t trying to label me as good or bad, and they might not be doing it verbally, but their actions (or sometimes inactions) seem to show that they view me as not as good. It’s not so much individuals, but rather the whole way that learning situations are set up—people seem to act as though my differences are the problem rather than considering solutions like changing the whole way things are taught.
I feel that the Jewish Community does not do a good job serving people with learning disabilities because of this way of looking at things.
This summer, I went to Pennsylvania where I presented at the Association for Autistic Community Conference. While I was there, I got a chance to meet Ari Ne’eman who is the founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. He is also the youngest-ever presidential appointee and serves on the National Council on Disability.
In an article for The Jewish Week, Ne’emen points out that that title III of the ADA specifically doesn’t cover religious programs. In the article, he writes, “What is a matter of right for most summer camps and private schools is one of charity for Jewish settings. Instead of talking about respecting the rights of disabled people, Jewish communal institutions instead discuss disability in terms of ‘special needs’ – extra rights, not equal ones. As a result, many Jews with disabilities are funneled into programming that segregates them from the broader scope of Jewish life rather than being meaningfully included.”
Although the Jewish community as a whole may not be doing a good job including those with disabilities, Kol HaNeshamah has made it a priority. That said, I still think we are not doing as good a job as we could be. We are pretty good at including those with physical disabilities, but I think we could be doing a better job supporting youth with learning disabilities here in our religious school programs. This includes both Hebrew school on Tuesdays and the Out of the Box program on Saturdays. One reason we may not notice ways we could be better is because kids with learning disabilities might not choose to come to Kol HaNeshamah.
I would like there to be support at Kol HaNeshamah for all different ways of learning. This could be as small as making copies of books with larger font sizes and something as big as sending teachers to trainings. If we can raise enough money, I also think it might be helpful for some people to have extra tutoring or an instructional assistant to be in class with them.
To accomplish this, as a bar mitzvah project, I have decided to create a fund. This fund will hopefully be able to pay for things that would make education a more equal learning opportunity at Kol HaNeshamah. You can read more about it in your booklets.
As stated earlier, my Torah portion focuses on the differences between being compassionate and judging people. By funding better access, we are being compassionate—we are trying to get equal Jewish education for everybody; we are not trying to decide if they deserve the help, we are simply helping because it is the right thing to do.
Abraham wanted to help everybody in Sodom and Gomorrah. Today we are given a chance to help all learners at Kol HaNeshamah. I will be giving a portion of the money I get as bar mitzvah gifts to this fund, and I would be honored if you would help me, and Shabbat Shalom.