Matters of the Heart

For the week of November 3rd, 2012

Parashat “Va’yera”
Genesis 18:1-22:24

Perhaps like some of you, I’m definitely ready for the campaign season to be over.  During these final weeks, we’re besieged by television commercials, postcards, newspaper editorials and phone calls that promote the virtues of one candidate or warn about the dark consequences of voting for an opponent.  These emotional appeals, particularly appeals to our fears and resentments, remind us that elections and politics are at least as much a matter of emotion as of reason.  Apparently, political consultants have figured out that if you can manipulate people’s emotions successfully, you often can get them to vote one way or another.  All of which helps to explain the commercials’ threatening music, their shadowy backgrounds and the presentation of even the smallest biographical fact in a manner calculated to make us worry, to make us suspicious or to cause us to resent someone.  Because though we may like to think otherwise, we often make choices, even our most consequential choices, based primarily on how something or someone makes us feel and not based on a rational, careful review of the pros and cons.

According to some translations of the Torah, this tendency also may be a challenge for God.  Va’yera includes the passage in which God informs Abraham of the approaching punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham famously pleads for the cities.  In Genesis 18:23, Abraham asks God:  “Will you indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked?”  What would it say about God’s justice, Abraham asks, if the innocent and wicked were  to suffer the same, terrible fate?  Amazingly, the Creator of the entire universe seems to be compelled by Abraham’s argument.  God agrees that even if there are only 50 righteous people in the cities, everyone will be spared for the sake of those 50.  We know the rest.  Abraham eventually convinces God that only 10 righteous people would mean sparing the cities but tragically, not even a minyan of righteous people can be found.  Sodom and Gomorroh are destroyed.

But some alternative translations for Genesis 18:23 suggest that Abraham may be warning God not to make a rash decision based in anger.  In the Hebrew, Abraham asks,  “Ha’af tispeh tzaddik im rasha?”  The usual translations render  “ha’af” as something like, “Will you really…?”  or, as above, “Will you indeed…?”  But according to Rabbi Plaut’s commentary, the Targum* and Syriac** versions of this verse treat the Hebrew word, “af” as “anger” and therefore understand Abraham’s question as, “Will You, in anger, sweep away the innocent with the wicked?”***  In other words, Abraham is cautioning God not to be ruled by emotion–especially a powerful emotion like anger–when making such a crucial, life-and-death decision.

Setting aside the interesting, theological question of an anthropomorphized God (who feels human emotions), this nuance teaches us important Torah.  First, these translations teach us about the value and urgency of having concerned advisers who will call us back to our best selves when we are in danger of making rash, emotional decisions.  How many of us have lived to regret a decision made in the heat of anger or fear or hurt or sorrow or even infatuation?  While there definitely can be a certain romance in spontaneous reactions to moments of deep emotion, such reactions also have the potential to cause a great deal of damage.  In such moments, we are blessed to have our own “Abrahams” who ask us the challenging but valuable questions that remind us of our best selves.  This interpretation reminds us to treasure such people in our lives (even though we sometimes may find their questions annoying!) and also to do our best to serve as worthy Abrahams for those we love.

Second, this interpretation reminds us that we tend to make the best choices when we don’t rely exclusively on either our rationality or our emotions.  We need both****.  Our humanity is discovered, defined and deepened in the creative space, in the constant dialogue between our hearts and our minds.  And if we aspire to wisdom, we will need to listen to both–apparently, just like God.

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*An ancient, Aramaic translation and paraphrase of the Bible.  See here for more information about “Targum”.

**Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic that apparently dates back to the 2nd century C.E.

***The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised), ed., Rabbi W.G. Plaut (New York: URJ Press, 2005), note to Gen. 18:23 on page 125.

****Here it seems worth reminding ourselves that for the Bible, the heart is the source of thought and skill as much as of feeling.  Regardless of what we now understand about human physiology, the Biblical view might instruct us about the importance of integrating reason and feeling in order to become “wise-hearted” (see, for example, Exodus 31:6 and Psalms 90:12).