Vayera – Imitatio Dei, Righteousness and Judgment – which “ways” of God should we imitate?
Before God discloses the imminent destruction of Sodom and its environs to Avraham, we are given a rare glimpse into the reason Avraham is included in the deliberations:
“The Lord said: Shall I hide what I am about to do from Avraham? Avraham will be a great and mighty nation, and all nations of the land will be blessed through him; for I have known him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep the way of the Lord (derech Hashem), doing righteousness and justice, so the Lord will bring about for Avraham that which He spoke of him.” (Bereishit 18:17-19)
These significant verses offer insight into the relationships between God and Avraham and his future descendants. But while the words and concepts all seem familiar, the connection between them and their relevance at this stage in the story is ambiguous. Sforno explains that God has a relationship (“knows”) with Avraham because he is already a paragon of virtue. God includes Avraham in the deliberations so he will see “the greatness of [God]’s kindness to evildoers as well, and His judgments against those who do not repent”. Avraham’s increased understanding of God’s merciful and just interactions with this world will enable him to better command his children to do righteousness and justice. In turn, God will fulfill the promise to be their God, and they can enlighten the nations and bring blessing to the world.
Derech Hashem – attributes of God?
This is the first appearance of the concept of “derech Hashem” in the Torah, and what appears here as a prophecy or ideal will later become an express commandment. But what are the “ways of Hashem”? The Sifrei on Parshat Ekev asks the same question, and answers:
“As it says: ‘Hashem, Hashem, a merciful and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding kindness and truth, preserving kindness for thousands (of generations), bears iniquity and transgression and sin, cleanses…’ (Shmot 34). Just as God is called merciful and compassionate (chanun v’rachum), so too you should be merciful and compassionate and give freely to all. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called righteous (tzaddik)… so too you should be righteous. The Holy One blessed be He is called kind (chassid)… so to you should be kind.”
The midrash ends here. The continuation of the verse, about bearing iniquity and remembering the sins of the father upon four generations is not included. Are we meant to continue the idea and emulate all 13 Attributes of God or just those of mercy, compassion, righteousness, and kindness? And what about other attributes of God – such as verses that describe God’s jealousy or anger?
We will return to this question, but first we would be remiss if we did not mention that there is a strong Jewish tradition to refrain from describing the unknowable Almighty. In Guide to the Perplexed (1:54) Rambam explains that what we call attributes or ways of God is an imperfect metaphor. We cannot know God, but we know some of the ways God interacts with the world and we project human emotions onto them. When a person provides for someone poor or takes care of someone sick they are acting with kindness and compassion, so we describe similar acts from God as kind and compassionate. These are emotions we attribute to the ways God conducts the world.
Derech Hashem – actions of God?
A midrash halakha in Sota explains the command to “walk after the Lord, your God” (Devarim 13:5) as concrete acts of kindness – clothing the naked, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and burying the dead. The midrash brings examples from the Torah including this week’s parsha, where the midrash explains God’s revelation in the beginning of the parsha as bikkur cholim – a visit to a sick Avraham recovering from his circumcision 3 days earlier.
Fulfilling “v’halachta b’drachav”
Based on the latter midrash, the Smag (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol Mitzvot Aseh 7) explains that visiting the sick, comforting mourners, etc, are biblical commandments under the general umbrella of the commandment “v’halachta b’drchav.”
Rambam disagrees. In his introduction to his enumeration of the mitzvot Rambam explains that these actions are rabbinic commandments, as are all mitzvot that are not the plain meaning of the text (pshat) but rather learned out through rabbinic expounding on the text (midrash). (Sefer HaMitzvot Shoresh 1, 2) He compares such rabbinic commandments to branches that grow from the root of the Divine commandment, and explains that these actions stem from the biblical commandment of “love your fellow as yourself” (v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha).
Rambam also counts “v’halachta b’drachav” as a biblical commandment (Mitzvot Aseh 8), but he explains that it is fulfilled by embodying the traits of mercy and kindness, as we saw in the Sifrei.
Why does Rambam focus on character traits rather than actions?
Rambam is not dismissing the importance of action in favor of intellectual pursuits. In Hilchot Deot (1:7) he explains that the way to incorporate these traits into our personality is to repeatedly act in accordance with them, so that they become habit. Sefer Ha-Chinuch will eventually distill this idea into the popular quote “acharei hama’asim nimshachim ha-levavot,” “hearts are drawn after actions”.
So, if the acts are necessary to instill the traits, why insist the mitzvah is fulfilled by character traits and not actions? It seems that there is an important distinction here; acts are things we do sometimes, but traits inform the way we act all the time. As Sefer Ha-Chinuch explains (611), “It is a general manner that a person chooses in all their ways and actions – whether it’s eating, drinking, business, Torah, prayers, speech, and anything…” It is not enough to occasionally visit the sick or comfort mourners, checking off our fulfillment of the mitzvah on a long “to do” list; we must be kind and merciful people in every decision, every word, and every action. This is not a sometimes mitzvah, this is an always mitzvah.
“God is furious every day”
Sefer Ha-Chinuch also poses a difficult question related to the one we posed above – the Tanakh and gemara describe God exhibiting rage – does that mean that to walk in God’s ways I must also instill anger in myself?
We could expand on his question with examples from on our own parsha. In Vayera we see God exhibit kindness and mercy – visiting the sick, saving Lot and his daughters from Sodom, protecting Sarah from Avimelech, remembering Sarah so she conceives and gives birth to a healthy baby – but we also see God of justice – in the destruction of Sodom and its environs and the plague on Avimelech’s household. Am I meant to walk in all God’s ways, or just those of kindness and mercy mentioned in the midrashim above?
Several sages have addressed this question. Rambam explains that these are not attributes that most people should follow, therefore they are not mentioned by the midrashim above. There is only one type of person who should emulate the traits of justice, anger, or loathing – a governor of a country who is also a prophet. He explains that such a person may never allow themselves to be driven by anger, vengence, or passion, but their actions may appear as if they are; when appropriate such a leader should judge the case according to its merits and give a proportional sentence for the greater good. He continues that acts that are attributed to justice or revenge and the like should be few and far between; the overwhelming majority of acts should be those of mercy, compassion, and kindness.
While Rambam says there is a small place for judgment and anger, other sages reject that possibility outright. Sefer HaChinuch first reminds us that anger is not one of God’s ways, but rather a way that we perceive God due to our limited human perception. He explains that on a daily basis there are moments that the evil people do in the world overwhelms the amount of good they do; in those moments, according to strict justice, the whole world should be destroyed. Nevertheless, the attribute of mercy prevails and God preserves the world. So too, in our daily lives, we must allow the attributes of kindness and mercy to prevail.
Maharal learns from the midrashic omission of traits of judgment and anger that we are only commanded to emulate attributes related to kindness and mercy. Why is judgment excluded? He answers that human beings are incapable of acting with justice the way that God does. God is omniscient, God is able to know the intentions, the actions, as well as the effects; in contrast humans see very little of the picture. We can see this even in the case of Sodom in this week’s parsha when Avraham cannot fathom the justice in its destruction. People – even great people – are liable to make mistakes, and even when they do not there is always an element of falsehood in human justice. (Chiddushei Agadot II 58 (Sota 14a)) There are specific commandments that tell us when justice or punishment must be meted out, but it is not a trait that should be incorporated beyond what we are commanded, because we cannot hope to emulate Divine justice. We only walk in God’s ways when we go beyond the letter of the law, beyond what we are obligated to do, and we should only extend these ob bestow kindness on another.
This parsha presents us with the idea that God has a close relationship with Avraham, at least in part, because he will instruct his children to keep God’s ways of righteousness and justice. The commandment “to walk in God’s ways” is a vital aspect of a Torah personality. God interacts with our world in ways we view as merciful and kind, and also in ways we perceive as angry or punitive. Yet the halakhic fulfillment of “v’halachta b’drachav” is overwhelmingly understood – by midrash, Rishonim, and Acharonim – to be limited to emulation of God’s kindness and mercy. While there are specific commandments that involve enforcing judgment, these are limited in scope and are not meant to become pervasive character traits that inform other actions. This may be due to the practical limitations of human justice or an ideological belief that God’s interactions with us consistently favor those of mercy and compassion.
Interestingly, throughout the stories of Avraham we see that even in times where judgment may be called for, Avraham leans to mercy – whether it is when he argues for the salvation of Sodom or when he gently chastises Avimelech about the stolen wells. Perhaps the greatest example can be seen when God tells Avimelech to return Sarah to Avraham and that Avraham is a navi, a prophet, who will pray on behalf of Avimelech’s household. God dealt in justice and sent a plague. But Avraham, who would have been justified to react with anger and vengeance, instead prays for mercy. “For he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the ways of God – righteousness and justice”.