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Parshas Vayeira (5770)

Abraham and the Athiests

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayeira, we read about the legendary kindness and hospitality of Judaism’s “First Couple”, Abraham and Sarah [see Genesis 18:1-8].

The Midrash and Talmud elaborate on the modus operandi of this dynamic duo and how, through their acts of kindness and philosophical arguments, they were able to bring many non-believers to embrace Ethical Monotheism. For example, the Midrash teaches that after enjoying a wonderful main course, masterfully prepared by Sarah and her kitchen staff, the (pagan) guests would say “thank you”. To which Abraham would respond, “Don’t thank us … thank the Master of the Universe”. This would lead to a long debate and discussion about how the universe came into being and why there have must have been a First Cause. Generally by the time the guests finished their coffee and cake they were already philosophically committed to the belief in One G-d and to the idea that life has ultimate purpose and meaning.

What many are not familiar with is a surprising Midrash Aggadah which tells us the following: If Abraham and Sarah’s guests did not “come around” to their way of thinking even after all those debates and philosophical arguments, Abraham would charge them (!) for the cost of the entire meal they had just eaten. When the guests saw the bill and realized how much trouble they were in, they would ultimately agree with Abraham and accept that there is a G-d Who runs the world (at which time Abraham would rip up the check and let them go without paying).

This Midrash is troubling for many reasons: First of all, how could our great ancestors Abraham and Sarah charge people for the meal they provided them? What kind of hospitality is that?! Secondly, even if their ultimate goal was to bring people to believe in G-d and morality, how could forcing people to believe in G-d by threatening to charge them lots of money accomplish that goal?

I believe the answer to this enigmatic Midrash is as follows: For the longest time, theologians and philosophers have debated whether or not atheists can have true objective morality. Many believe that morality simply can’t exist without belief in a Divine Being. After all, what’s the point in being a moral, generous person if life has no ultimate meaning and purpose? Maybe an atheist won’t kill anyone – even though in his view there is no real “right” and “wrong” and murder isn’t “immoral” since morals don’t really exist – since he doesn’t want others to kill him and then society would fall apart as we know it. But the idea of being a kind and good person really doesn’t have any meaning if you don’t believe in a G-d Who is the ultimate good and Who has created morality for us to emulate Him and be good just like him.

Abraham was trying to prove this exact point to the people who had benefited from his and Sarah’s generosity and kindness. If even after all of Abraham’s arguments, he was still unable to convince his guests that there is a G-d Who runs the world and that life has ultimate meaning, he would try one last courageous and outrageous tactic – he would proceed to charge them for the meal they had just eaten. When they would inevitably complain, he would say to them, “If there is no true morality, then why should Sarah and I be doing all this generosity stuff for you anyway? The very fact that you are protesting our charging you money for the meal we gave you can only be because deep inside – although you won’t admit it – you intuitively believe that there is a G-d and that being good and acting kind does have meaning and purpose!”

In this way, Abraham and Sarah were able to create a revolution and bring many tens of thousands of people to believe in the One True G-d Who is the source of all morality and goodness.

[One amazing example of a modern-day Abraham, who has created his own revolution, bringing back many Jews in Israel and elsewhere to a belief in G-d and to mitzvah observance, is the famous movie star-turned-rabbi Uri Zohar. You can see the video “Opened Heart” in which he shares his amazing life story at Hibadroot ]

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