I am a bargainer. Not just when I look for shopping deals, but even as part of my day to day life from childhood to adulthood. With my students I bargain: “If I get through everything I want to finish today, then you can have the rest of the class time to do other work.” As a kid I might have bargained with my parents: “If you let me stay up to finish watching my favorite show, I’ll read extra before bed tomorrow.” Sometimes in my relationship with God I try to bargain too: “God, if you help heal this person, I promise I will never ask for anything again.” Bargaining is a way of life for some, for others it just happens in moments of desperation. Regardless of what leads you to bargain, often in a bargain one person has the upper hand.
One of the great examples of an expert bargainer is Abraham in this week’s parshah, Vayera. In our parshah, Abraham’s story heats up. He recovers from his covenant with God, welcomes in themelachim (the messengers of God) to his tent, witnesses the birth of his son Isaac and the separation of his son Ishmael from his household, and makes a covenant with Avimelech, king of Gerar. The most notable events are Abraham bargaining with God at the incident of Sdom and Amora and going blindly to sacrifice his son at God’s request. These two events define Abraham’s life and relationship with God in deep and intense ways.
As the narrative tells us, God tells Abraham that he will destroy the cities of Sdom and Amora where Lot, Abraham’s uncle, is living because the people are absolutely dreadful. Upon hearing this news, Abraham begins to bargain with God. “God, if I find 50 good people, will you save the cities?” God agrees, but Abraham cannot hold up his end of the bargain. Abraham asks again thinking he can find 40 good people, and eventually goes all the way down to 10. Each time, God agrees to Abraham’s offer, perhaps ultimately knowing what the end result will be. Ultimately, Abraham has nothing left to bargain with, so he grabs his family, warns them not to turn back, and leads them all to safety except for Lot’s wife, who turns back and becomes a pillar of salt.
It was bold of Abraham to bargain with God. The Torah rarely tells us what God feels in any given situation, but I can almost imagine God’s reaction when Abraham starts the bargaining. I imagine a mixed reaction, dismayed and annoyed that someone would be so bold as to bargain with the divine and at the same time, taking it with a grain of salt knowing that Abraham has indeed given up all he’s ever known out of devotion to Him.
What we see in our parshah is that Abraham is willing to do whatever it takes, including bargaining with God, for what is right, yet, as with Sdom and Amora, knows when the argument is lost and the conditions cannot be met. Abraham also understands what it means to have faith and trust in God, like with the binding of Isaac, when the situation warrants it. Ultimately, a bargain can only be successful if both parties hold true to their promises. This balance isn’t easy, but will lead us well in our lives if we can follow the model.
May we all accept Abraham’s challenge and stand up when the situation warrants a bargaining voice to do great good, but be able to walk away when the price is too high and our energy could be better used elsewhere.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: There is a stark contrast drawn between the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah and the inhospitable community of Sdom. The Mishnah paints the residents of Sdom as people who ascribe to the philosophy “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” Have you ever been in a strange or unfamiliar place and felt like an outsider? How would you want to be treated?