Barbara J. Campbell, Pastor
We turn from Sarah’s laughable joy at the thought of new life to the very serious situation of sin and injustice taking place in two nearby cities called Sodom and Gomorrah. It is as if the joy and hope that is found in God’s promise is now set alongside the realities of the world’s injustice.
Author Everett Fox writes about this remarkable tale saying that, “Without this story Abraham would be a man of faith but not a man of compassion and moral outrage.” It is in this story, Fox contends, more than anywhere with exception of the Binding of Isaac, that Abraham will be proven as the “worthy father of his people, the one who will ‘charge his sons and his household. . . to do what is right and just.’”
It seems clear that human beings are not meant to be disconnected or ignorant of God’s will or ways. Since God has chosen Abraham and his descendants to be God’s people and has promised to be their God, God chooses to consult with Abraham, to partner with Abraham in the situation of evil that lies before them.
The holy strangers at Abraham’s tent have had their meal and left their good news and they now turn their attention toward the outcries of injustice coming from Sodom. As they leave Abraham decides to goes a ways with them. The Lord is with them also, wondering if Abraham should be spared from the harsh realities ahead, but deciding, it seems, that if Abraham is to lead his household in the ways of justice, Abraham needs to have a full understanding of how difficult that justice seeking may be.
When Abraham realizes what is going on in Sodom and Gomorrah and understands the choice God has to make in dealing with the injustice, Abraham responds in a surprising fashion. Abraham is blunt, persistent, and pulls no punches. God has chosen to bring Abraham into the decision making, and Abraham responds with words like “indeed” and “Far be it from you!”, words that are confrontational and demanding. The dialogue gives us a picture of the intimate and unique relationship Abraham had with his God. Direct questions were not discouraged in this relationship but welcome.
The dialogue presents us with the ultimate question of God’s justice and God’s compassion even when confronted with injustice. As Abraham focuses the discussion on the “righteous,” those who had NOT participated in the injustices, knowing that their deliverance would also mean the saving of many wicked. Abraham is thinking that for the sake of even a few, the many should not be destroyed. It almost sounds as if the few righteous will enable the many unrighteous to be saved. Hm… that sounds a bit familiar.
The dialogue between Abraham and God serves to bring Abraham, perhaps, to the place where God wanted him to get to in the end. Abraham finally asks God, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” The Hebrew is mispat meaning justice and it is the same just behavior that God expects of Abraham and his family.
Even though, in this story, Lot and others escape from Sodom to a place of refuge before the city is destroyed by fire, the dialogue, none the less, points to the possibility that the righteousness of a few; the presence of just a bit of love and justice may “so permeate a wicked society that they can save it from the destructive effects of its own evil ways.” (Terance Fretheim, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Pg 470)
Perhaps we can name, briefly, those righteous few in our history who have saved the societies around them from their evil ways. . . .
(MLK and civil rights movement, Ghandi, Desmond Tutu, Shindler’s List. . .)
Last Sunday, Jews around the world fasted on a day of mourning called, Tisha B’Av; or “The Ninth of Av;” the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This is the day that commemorates the destruction of the two Temples of Jerusalem which is said to have taken place on the same day – the ninth of Av - about 656 years apart.
The ninth of Av also happens to be the day that Jews were expelled from England in 1290, the day that they were expelled from Spain in 1492, the day in 1914 that World War I began when Germany declared war on Russia, setting the stage for World War II and the Holocaust, the day in 1940 when Himmler presented his plan for the “Final Solution” to the Jewish problem to the Nazi Party, and the day in 1942 when the Nazis begin deporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Tisha B’Av is a day of fasting that draws the Jewish people to remember and mourn the ways of evil in the world. Yet it is a day when hope is still alive because these children of Abraham continue to cling to their faith that God does not abandon the righteous, even in the face of overwhelming evil and that even the righteousness of a few are able to overcome the evil.
According to Jewish tradition, on the first Tisha B’Av, when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, in the very moment of disaster the Messiah was born, hidden away till the time will come when the world is ready to live in peace and justice. In that day, the Messiah will rebuild the Temple of God’s Presence. Here is a story of that day as told in Tales of Tikkun (Justice) written by Rabbi Phyllis Berman and Rabbi Arthur Waskow..
Transforming the Last Tisha B’Av:
A New Tale of How Messiah Will Rebuild the Temple
To the hills of Israel where the air is clearest and it is possible to see the furthest ?-
To the little town of Safed above the Sea of Galilee –
Long ago there came a Hassidic pilgrim, to see his Rebbe.
Struggling up hills, over cobblestones, through narrow alleyways, the Chassid came panting, shaking, to the door of a pale and quiet synagogue.
So pale, so quiet was this shul that the pastel paintings on the wall and ceiling stood out as though they were in vivid primary colors.
As the Chassid came into the shul, he saw his Rebbe high on a make-shift ladder, painting a picture on the ceiling above the altar.
The Chassid blinked, startled to see his Rebbe with a paint brush in his hand.
And then he blinked again. He frowned and tugged at his beard:
“Rebbe, what is this that you are painting here above the altar? It looks like the Dome that the Children of Ishmael, the ones they call Muslims, have built above the rock where Abraham bound Isaac.
“The giant golden Dome that they have built where stood the Holy Temple. I have just come from Jerusalem… It looks…” He stopped when his Rebbe’s eyes quietly closed.
“You know,” his Rebbe said, “Here in Safed we live in the radiance of the Kabbalists who lived and taught here many years ago. The air here is so clear and their radiance so pure that with our outer and our inner eyes we can see and see and see… so far! And I have seen…” he said, and paused. “I have seen…” he said and paused again.
“Looking and seeing, they can be so strange. For example — our sages teach us that when Messiah comes, he will rebuild the Holy Temple in the twinkling of an eye. But often have I wondered: How can this be? Messiah will be extraordinary, yet still a human being merely …
“But now! I have seen … Well, let me tell you: At the foot of the Western Wall, the Wall where God’s Own Presence weeps and hides in exile, I have seen hundreds of thousands of Jews gathered, singing.
“Messiah has come! – – and they are singing, dancing, as the Great Day dawns. Women, men, together – – I could not believe it! I was not even sure” – – he glanced apologetic at his Chassid — “whether Messiah … well, forget it.
“I can see from the sun, the heat, it is late afternoon. Yet the crowd are wearing t’fillin. The only time in all the year when Jews wear t’fillin in the afternoon is Tisha B’Av, so I can see that it is the day of mourning for our beloved Temple. But there are no signs of mourning – – except perhaps the way, the wistful way, Messiah reaches out to touch the Wall, to tuck one last petition between the great carved stones.
“I see Messiah speak a sentence to the crowds. I cannot hear the words, but I can see that from this voice there stirs a river. Like water from the ancient stones of Wall, I see a stream of Jews flow up the stairway that rises to the Temple Mount.
“The river of people pauses on the steps. They cluster ’round a wrinkled, tattered piece of paper, posted above the stairway. I see it is signed by the rabbis of that day. It warns all Jews to go no further, lest by accident they walk – – God forbid! – – into the space set aside as the Holy of Holies.
“Messiah reads. And laughs. And tears the sign to shreds. The stream of people shudders – – and they follow the Messiah higher, higher.
“The crowd cascades from the stairway onto the great stone pavement of the Temple Mount. Their singing turns to the thunder of a great waterfall. They look toward the other end of the Mount — toward the great golden Dome of the Rock where Abraham bound his son for sacrifice.
“Surrounding the Dome are thousands of these children of Ishmael, these Muslims. They are not singing. They are shouting, furious, stubborn. ‘Not here!’ they shout in unison, ‘Not here!’
“‘You will not tear down our Holy Mosque to build your Jewish Temple!’
“But I can hear the crowd of Jews – – muttering, whispering, ‘Right there, yes! – – That is the place… No doubt, no doubt, the ancient studies tell us that it is the place.’
“Messiah is quiet. The sea of Jews falls to a murmuring, falls silent. They turn to watch. Messiah looks, gazes, embraces with fond eyes the Holy Space. Messiah’s eyes move across the Dome, its golden glow, the greens and blues and ivories of the walls beneath it.
I hear a whisper from Messiah’s lips: ‘So beautiful!’
“The Muslims too are silent now. The stillness here, the stillness there – – so total that they split the Holy Mount in two.
“Messiah raises one arm, slowly, slowly. The Muslims tense, lift knives and clubs and shake them in the stillness. The Jews tense, ready to leap forward with their picks and shovels.
“Messiah points straight at the Dome.
“The peoples vibrate: two separate phantom ram’s horns in the silent air, wailing forth a silent sob to Heaven.
“Messiah speaks quietly into the utter quiet:
‘This green, this blue, this gold, this Dome – – This is the Holy Temple!’
“For seconds, minutes, there is not a sound.
“Then I hear a Muslim shout, see him raise a knife: ‘No! No! You will not steal our Holy Mosque to make your Jewish Temple!”
“He throws the knife. It falls far short. No one stirs. The other Muslims turn to look at him. They look with steadfast eyes: no joy, no anger. They just keep looking. He wilts into the crowd; I can no longer see what he is doing.
”Messiah steps forward, one step. Everyone, Jew and Muslim, breathes a breath. One Jew calls out: ‘You must not do this. You must not use their dirty place to be our Holy Temple. Tear it down! – – We need our own, the Prophets teach how wide and tall it is to be. It is not this thing of theirs, this thing of curves and circles.
“He takes a step toward Messiah, lifts an axe to brandish it.
“The man beside him reaches out a hand and takes the axe. Just takes it. There is a murmur. but the murmur dies. The man holds the axe level in both hands, walks out with it into the no- man’s land between the crowds. He lays it on the pavement next to the Muslim knife, he backs away.
“There is another time of quiet. Two Muslims reach out from the crowd, toss their knives to land next to the axe. The pause is shorter this time. Then on every side weapons come flying through the air to land beside the axe, beside the knives. There is a pile. Someone walks forward, lights a fire. The pile begins to burn. The flames reach up and up and up – – to Heaven.
“So I have seen,” the Rebbe said, “Messiah build the Temple in the twinkling of an eye. And that is why I am painting this Dome upon our ceiling.”
The visitor took breath again. “And why?” he said. “Why would Messiah do this dreadful thing?”
The Rebbe put his arm around his Chassid’s shoulder.
“You still don’t see?” he said. “Even here in Safed, you still don’t see?
“I think Messiah had four reasons:
“First for the sake of Abraham’s two families.
“Second for the sake of the spirals in the Dome.
“Third for the sake of the Rock beneath the Dome.
“And fourth for the sake of the twinkling of an eye.”
”And Rebbe – why did the people burn their weapons’?”
“For the sake of the burnt offering. It is written that when the Temple is rebuilt, there must be burnt offerings. And it is also written, ‘Choose!’
“Choose what? Choose what to burn:
“Each other, and the Temple, yet again?
“Or – – the things we use to burn each other with.”
“So …” said the Chassid, “… dear Rebbe – you are saying that the Dome – it really is our Temple?
“Forgive me, Rebbe, but I have a different seeing. Where they raised up the burnt-offering I think must be the Temple. The empty space. The empty space where the offering went up in flames to Heaven.
“The empty space between them, where they burned the weapons – – perhaps that is the Temple’?
“Ours and theirs?”
The Rebbe turned, astonished, to gaze more deeply into the Chassid’s eyes.
And then together, each with an arm around the other’s shoulder, together they walked to where their eyes could look:
Far, far beyond the hills, much farther than the Sea of Galilee.
(This story comes from Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World, by Rabbi Phyllis Berman and Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Copyright (c) 1993 by the authors.)