“…Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25)
Parashat Vayera tells the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and introduces an important concept in Jewish thought: z’chut, or merit. Abraham distinguishes himself from Noah by challenging God’s plan and holding God accountable to a moral code. Abraham advocates for the cities’ innocent inhabitants and gets God to agree to spare the cities if a minimum of ten righteous individuals are found. Nahum Sarna (1923–2005; modern Biblical scholar) notes Abraham’s appeal is not for justice, but for mercy. Abraham asks God to tolerate evil because of the presence of righteousness. Implicit in this request is the recognition it is worse to kill the innocent than to spare the guilty.
Z’chut is moral “credit in the bank.” What makes the concept interesting is one person makes the deposit while another person benefits from the withdrawal. That’s what happens in Vayera: the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah draw on the z’chut of the righteous. Later in the Torah, God tolerates the Israelites’ constant backsliding throughout the desert wanderings either because of Moses’ intercession or because of z’chut avot, the merit of the forefathers. And the Yom Kippur liturgy is peppered with pleas to God to remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to be lenient in judging us today, because of their z’chut.
When Abraham demonstrates his complete faith in God through his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, his son (Gen. 22:1-14), he makes a deposit of z’chut so substantial its credit is good for all time. You could say we’ve all been freeloading off of Abraham for centuries, proving, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom