Last week I listened to an episode of “On Being with Krista Tippett” about having relationships with people with whom we profoundly disagree. In this episode, Tippett interviewed Erick Erickson, a conservative pundit, and Sally Kohn, a progressive political commentator. Neither of them agrees with the other on most political issues, but they both agreed with the following statement: “The left, by and large, is nicer to humanity in general but not people in specific, and conservatives are nicer to people in specific but not humanity in general.”
This tension between serving the individual or the particular and serving the community or the universal is one that has existed for millennia. It’s even found in this week’s parshah, Vayera.
Abraham seems to tend more toward the conservative end of the spectrum. He argues with God about the possible presence of righteous individuals in the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, whom God would have destroyed along with the evildoers. Then he causes problems (including barrenness) for the entire community of Gerar because he’s worried that he’ll be killed if King Abimelech finds out that Sarah is his wife. He shows concern primarily for individuals rather than whole communities.
God seems to be more liberal. God is willing to destroy two cities and everyone in them because most of the people are wicked. Then God asks Abraham to sacrifice the two people he loves most (Ishmael and Isaac) in order to set the stage for the development of these two nations. God is more concerned about the larger community than the experience of specific individuals.
While we might hope that God and Abraham come to recognize the value of both the community and the individual, they each serve to temper the extremism of the other. Abraham’s particularism challenges God’s universalism and God’s long- and wide-ranging vision challenges Abraham’s narrow focus. And our story would not be complete without both. We need both sides in order to be whole.
But even more than having both perspectives present is the communication of and struggle to prioritize these values. When Abraham takes matters into his own hands in Gerar, things get bad enough that God has to come in and clean things up. On the other hand, when God takes control of matters, relationships are destroyed. The only one of these four stories that works out appropriately for all involved is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Why? Because there was time and space where the conflicting values of individual and community were shared and the two leaders worked together to ensure that priorities were in the right place.
Likewise, our community and our country need leaders who represent different perspectives and will work with each other to find the right path for moving forward. We need opportunities and spaces where values and priorities can be discussed again and again. We need to be able to recognize that sometimes other people can see what we can’t. And frankly, we all need regular reminders to be nice to people in specific and to humanity in general so that we can truly be blessings. PJC
Rabbi Keren Gorban is the associate rabbi at Temple Sinai. The column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.