Nahum Sarna, the great 20th century Bible scholar, describes Genesis 18, the opening passage of Parashat Vayera as a chapter that “divides into two distinct parts.” Part one describes “the appearance of angelic visitors to Abraham” while part two details “the intended divine visitation upon Sodom and Gomorrah.” Acknowledging that “the two topics appear to be discrete”, Sarna also suggests that they are “closely interconnected”: “The first carries a message of life and posterity, the second of death and everlasting destruction. Both reveal the nobility of Abraham’s character; both disclose the workings of divine Providence”. [JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 128]
Abraham Receiving the Three Angels, by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 17th century
My friend and teacher, Rabbi Shai Held, sees a powerful connection between the two parts of Genesis 18. “Our covenant with God is not just about having children”, he writes; “it is also about the kind of children we have. Abraham is promised a son, but he must raise him with a passion for what is good and just. The continued flow of divine blessing depends on it”. For Rabbi Held, the key verse in the passage is this one: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord (derekh Adonai) by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what (the Lord) has promised him” (Genesis 18:19)
That ‘way of the Lord’ consists of what exactly? Aviva Zornberg’s beautiful reading of Vayera suggests that God’s way involves a sequential prioritizing of some of our tradition’s central values. Hospitality and hesed come first, to be followed by righteousness and justice. Here’s Zornberg: “To judge the earth is to annihilate it. Mishpat (justice) is the modality that human beings can never appropriate as their own…To adhere to such standards is to destroy the world; in order to build the world, hesed, the generous perception of alternative possibilities, is necessary.” [The Beginning of Desire, p. 110]
A passion for justice devoid of a prior commitment to kindness and hospitality destroys. In contrast, a passion for mishpat rooted in and anchored by a lived commitment to hesed builds lives, communities, and the world itself. That’s way of Abraham and Sarah; that’s meant to be the learned path of their posterity; that’s derekh Adonai.