For whose sake do we act? On whose behalf? In whose name?
Abraham’s argument with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah powerfully invites us into that set of questions. After finalizing the divine plan to wipe out the two cities, God wonders aloud about the wisdom and obligation of sharing that plan with Abraham.
Now Adonai had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that (l’ma’an) he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of Adonai (derekh Adonai) by doing what is just and right, in order that (l’ma’an) Adonai may bring about for Abraham what God has promised him.” [Genesis 18:17-19]
The wording of the divine interior monologue seems to suggest that following the way/path of Adonai (derekh Adonai) serves the goal of ‘bring(ing) about for Abraham what God has promised him.’ In other words, one should do what is just and right in order to benefit oneself. We act, that is, for our own sake, on our own behalf, in our own name.
Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the great 19th century Hasidic master, notices that the word l’ma’an, which means ‘in order that,’ appears twice in our verse. He sees in that doubling another possible understanding of God’s hope for Abraham. For Levi Yitzhak, Abraham’s “intention is to connect any mitzvah he performs not only with himself alone but with ‘his children and his posterity.’” We act, that is, not for ourselves and our benefit alone; we act for the sake of those who succeed us.
In this moment of uncertainty and worry about the future, we would do well to consider Abraham’s example. Seeking justice and equity for ourselves is right and good. It’s also not enough. As Abraham’s inheritors we have a further obligation to think, and to act, beyond our own needs and benefits. Our job is to act on behalf of our children and, I would argue, on behalf of other people’s children as well.
In the universe of Biblical ideas and ideals, that approach has an added advantage. As R Shmuel David Luzzatto (19th century, Italy), quoting the prophet Jeremiah, reminds us, it’s what God wants from, and for, us. “As Jeremiah says: Only in this should one glory: In earnest devotion to Me. For I Adonai act with kindness, Justice, and equity in the world; For in these I delight — declares Adonai.” [Jeremiah 9:23]