When We Disagree

This morning we read a discussion between God and Abraham about the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the first seventeen chapters of Genesis, there had been differences of opinion, but this is the first time we are witness to a vocalized disagreement with God. It is a pivotal moment in Abraham’s evolution as a leader of the Jewish people, and a startling turning point in the God-Abraham relationship.

When the text begins, Abraham is God’s loyal follower. Twenty-four years prior[1], God called out to him saying “Lech Lecha—Go forth to a land that I will show you.” Abraham gathered his positions, convinced his wife to come along, and left everything he had ever known to begin his journey. In twenty-four years, Abraham had gone through his share of ups and downs. Although having a series of close calls with a Pharaoh and with violent kings, he emerged on top, amassing wealth, and renewing his covenant with God. After years of praying for a child, Ishmael was born. And he just found out that the three strangers he welcomed in for a meal turned out to angels of God. They came with the news that his wife, Sarah, was pregnant at 90 years old. That was surely a miracle. Abraham was overjoyed.

And then, without warning, he heard something that upset him deeply: God was planning to destroy Sodom, Gomorrah and all of their residents. Years earlier, Abraham had saved many of these same people from the cruel hands of the kings who once looted and ravaged their cities. How could God do this, he thought. How could Abraham let Him?

How do we respond when others say something that feels so wrong to us? When their words make our skin crawl and our blood boil, and we become so enraged and so confused that words fail us? Do we avoid the topic altogether, allowing our anger bubble beneath the surface?

Abraham considered this. After all these years, and all they had been through, Abraham wondered if maybe he should let it go. Abraham’s experiences with God had always turned out okay in the end. So why should this one be different? Did he really want to offer a differing opinion to God?

On the other hand, how could he not speak up, when people’s lives were on the line? How could he pretend that he didn’t feel the way he did? What would it do to their relationship if Abraham kept his mouth closed?

Abraham thought about Adam and Eve. After God had created Adam, He said “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make him an עֵזֶר, כְּנֶגְדּוֹ [2]Translators have wrestled with the meaning of these words, offering suggestions that fall short. God was not creating “a helper suitable for Adam” [3] as the New American Standard Bible suggests, nor was God creating “help to match him for him,”[4] as suggested by the Jewish Publication Society. The Hebrew indicates a far more unlikely translation: that God saw Adam was alone and responded by creating “a helpmate against him.”[5]

The language of this verse is strange. No wonder the translators have such trouble communicating its true meaning. We know from experience, however, that every relationship of depth has moments of hurt. Even in the strongest friendships and the most loving marriages, partners hurt one another. George W. Bush famously said, “You’re either with us or against us.” Genesis teaches that it is often possible to both simultaneously.

As Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld Explains in his book You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right, “our most painful disagreements arise because we share the same values.” He describes an example of this truth. One day two women named Sarah and Becka walked into his office, angry at one another. Becka was the Jewish girl, whose father was a board member of CLAL. Sarah was Palestinian who had recently visited relatives in the occupied territories. On her way home, she wrote a scathing blog condemning Israel for the conditions there. Becka was furious, and Sarah couldn’t understand why. Their arguments about the topic became so heated that they decided to avoid it altogether. It remained in the back of their minds, however. They had been the closest of friends, and this tension was beginning to destroy their friendship.

Rabbi Hirschfield read Sarah’s blog. Sarah had in fact described what she saw. Her description was accurate, but her focus too narrow. Their disagreement, at its core, wasn’t about facts. It was about shared values. Becka wouldn’t have been so upset with Sarah’s words if she didn’t share Sarah’s outrage about what was going on in the territories. She would have simply said “Israel’s in the right, and the conversation is over.” Becka wouldn’t have been so upset by Sarah’s words if she didn’t feel the same outrage about suicide bombers, and terrorism in Israel. They were angry because they SHARED the same values, and yet they had different narratives. Putting aside their disagreement wasn’t helping them. Perhaps, Rabbi Hirshfeld suggested they should acknowledge it fully while recognizing how many values you share and how much you mean to one another.[6]

Abraham decided he had to talk to God. The time had come.

Then Abraham came near.  At a time when Abraham’s frustration urged him to move away from God, Abraham instead drew near. Just like Becka and Sarah, he had to start this conversation from a place of relationship and respect. He began not with anger or long-winded arguments, but instead with a question about what God had just told him. Abraham says, “Do you plan to destroy the righteous along with the wicked?”  Questions of clarity follow: “Perhaps there are 50 righteous people inside the city. Will You sweep away and not forgive the place for the sake of the fifty righteous ones in their midst?” God does not respond. Instead, God allows him to continue. Abraham obliges. “Far be it from You to do such a thing—to rain death upon both the righteous and the wicked, treating righteous and wicked alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of the whole earth do justice?” This is not the God that Abraham knows. To Abraham, God is full of mercy, compassion, and justice. How could killing innocent men ever be just? If all of this is, in fact, true, and God goes along with it, then this isn’t the God that Abraham knows. God has changed. Perhaps at this moment, God needed an ezer knigdo– God needed a helpmate to go against Him and challenge him.

But then Abraham stops. He’s made his case, but he remembers that just because he is convinced of something doesn’t mean he’s right. Like Sarah, perhaps he isn’t seeing the whole truth. Perhaps God has something to teach him.

God responds. “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous people—within the city—I will forgive the entire place for their sake.”

“Phew,” Abraham thinks. “God isn’t so unreasonable after all. But wait—fifty people? That’s so many! I’ve been to Sodom and Gomorrah. I know they aren’t the kindest places in the world…”

Abraham looked at God, seeing the unsettled feeling in his eyes. He continued:

Here I have presumed to speak to my lord though I am but dust and ashes.”

Even while challenging God, Abraham demonstrates humility. He understands that this form of respect is not a form of weakness, but rather one of strength. When God is ready, Abraham pushes a little further.

“Perhaps the fifty righteous people will lack five. Would you Destroy the entire city because of five people…. Or perhaps there are only 40 righteous people…”

Sensing that he can push some more, Abraham continues.

“Please, let my lord not be angry, but allow me to speak.” I’m not disagreeing to insult you God, or to demean you. Please don’t be angry with me—but I need to ask once again…

“Perhaps thirty will be found there.” “Twenty?”

“For the sake of the twenty, I will not destroy.”

What a relief, Abraham thought. God didn’t want to destroy innocent people. I wonder if I can ask just one more time…

“Please, let my lord not be angry, but allow me to speak one last time.” Abraham knew that there is a limit to how much we can push. “Perhaps ten will be found there.”

“For the sake of the ten, I will not destroy,” said God.

And Adonai departed, having finished speaking with Abraham. The conversation is over, without gloating or pointed fingers. The conversation ends, and they go on their way, knowing that one day soon they would speak again.

The Torah tells us that this conversation almost didn’t happen. God considered destroying the cities without first discussing it with Abraham. In the end, God decided that he too needed an ezer knegdo– He needed a helper to go against him and challenge him, and help him figure out if this was really the right move. He knew that if there was reason God shouldn’t destroy these cities, Abraham would find it. And yet he also knew that the cities were far more corrupt than even Abraham knew[7]. If Abraham came to God, with anger in his voice and accusations on his lips, then it is possible God would not have heard him.

The conversation could have gone very badly. Instead, it went well, because both parties came to the table interested in hearing what the other had to say, understanding that no matter how right they felt they were, there was always a possibility that they were wrong. By focusing on their shared value on human life, being sensitive to one another’s positions and needs, and being honest with one another, they were able to turn a challenging conversation into an entryway to a more profound relationship. The Torah tells us that Abraham and God renewed their covenant months before this encounter, but perhaps their true covenant began at this moment of honest dialogue.

This past spring, the Utica community had an honest dialogue of our own. After a sea of angry emails about Israel flooded inboxes at JCC, it was clear the time was ripe for a class about Israel. This wasn’t just any class. It was a class filled with Israel lovers of all kinds— from AIPAC members to JSTREET members, from people who believed that Israel’s number one priority should be the land to people who believed our priority should be to compromise. Each week we gathered in a small room at the JCC, with a few guiding rules:

  • If Israel’s top advisors had not been able to figure out how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over more than six decades, it was unlikely that we would do it over the course of 8 weeks. Our goal wasn’t to solve the problem. It was to alter the way we discuss it.
  • We weren’t there to change anyone’s opinions. We weren’t there to say “How come you’re not who I want you to be?” Rather, we were there to learn from one another, because everyone present had something to teach.

Together we studied Jewish texts and explored the underlying values, and how they guided the way we saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather than rehash the same old arguments, or debate the facts, we discovered the importance of every single one of our values. We came to appreciate that although we may agree about how to best take care of Israel, we all want to take care of Israel. During one of the last classes, a participant raised her hand and said “You know. My mind wasn’t changed; I didn’t expect it to be. But I have so much more respect for viewpoints other than my own.”

In a month from now, I’m teaching a class to a group of 25 retirees. We will study texts, and explore the values underneath many of our most controversial debates. You may say I’m being naïve to run this kind of class, especially in an election year as contentious as this one. And perhaps you’re right. But like Abraham and God, Sarah and Becka, and the participants in the Iengage class, I believe the right kind of conversations and debate can build bridges over the deepest rifts, as long as everyone plays by the rules.

As we know, conversations and debates over contentious issues don’t always go so smoothly. Last year, in a sermon about the Iran Nuclear Agreement, I cited the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai. If you remember, Hillel and Shammai were two rabbinic houses which often disagreed. They are remembered not only for their wisdom but also for the respect they offered one another throughout their disagreements.

It is true that Hillel and Shammai did get along surprisingly well most of the time, but there were dark days. After one particular dispute, members of the house of Hillel were so full of pride that they won the debate, and so angry at the opposing view that what had been a debate for the sake of heaven turned into a violent rampage[8]. It was hard to imagine that the houses would be able to reconcile their differences after events of that kind. When all was said and done, they decided that from them on they would settle their disputes in more constructive ways[9]. Even the worst disagreement possible has the opportunity for transformation.

You may have noticed that our country is in the midst of a rather contentious debate of its own, as we decide what kind of a country we wish to be. In 34 days, the election will be over. I pray that our debates never become as violent as the ones of Hillel and Shammai, but I hope that when the last ballot is counted, we are able to learn as much from this experience as Hillel and Shammai did. I hope that all of us can sit at the table, and listen to one another. Our nation is divided, but it need not be forever.

Abraham and God had a healthy conversation about Israel, of differing opinions. In the end, despite all of Abraham’s work to dissuade God, ultimately Sodom was destroyed. Abraham awoke to see smoke arising from the city. The Torah teaches that at this moment, God remembered Abraham’s words and saved Lot and his family. God did what He thought was right, but he also allowed Himself to take in the wisdom of his ezer knegdo as well. Even God has something to learn. “It is not good for man to be alone,” God said. “I will make him an ezer knegdo.” In that moment, though neither completely had their way, they knew one thing for certain: they were not alone.

[1] He was 75 when he left Haran, according to Genesis 12:4. He was 86 when Hagar bore Ishmael, according to Gen 16:16. By Genesis 17:1, he was already 99 when he renewed his covenant with God, circumcision and all.

[2] Genesis 2:18

[3] New American Standard Bible (NASB)

[4] Jewish Publication Society

[5] Brad Hirshfeld pointed this out in You Don’t Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right, p. 193.

[6] Ibid. p. 193-5.

[7] Its land was rich and fertile. It was a magnet for people seeking prosperity. Although the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had more than enough, they refused to share. More than that, they did everything they could, including torture and sexual perversion to discourage strangers from entering their land (see: B. Sanhedrrin 109b, Numbers Rabbah 9:24, Lev. Rabbah 5:2, Gen. Rabbah 42:5). Anyone who helped strangers would be killed. For example, according to Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer 25, Lot’s daughter Pelotit had been married to one of Sodom’s notables. She saw a man who was poor and was languishing in the town square. Feeling sorry for him, she brought him food and water every day. The people of Sodom didn’t understand how he was still alive. When they figured out what Pelotit had been doing, they had her burned. While being burned she called out to God. It was her cry that God heard and responded to.

[8] Talmud Yerushalmi Shabbat 4a

[9] See http://pcjcr.pardes.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/JDCC-Occasional-Paper-2013.pdf

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