By Rabbi Yoni Sherizen, November 13, 2008

"And Abraham stepped forward and said: ‘Will You also wipe away the righteous with the wicked?'" Genesis 18:23

A Jewish student recently returned from extensive volunteering in Uganda and proudly reported that a surprisingly high percentage of the aid and relief leaders came from Jewish roots. I was pleased to hear this news but wasn't terribly surprised as we have always been a people that confront challenges with little fear or shame.

Driven by principle to stand up to even the highest ranks of leadership, we are found at the forefront of many important campaigns. Some explain this ethic of activism as a response to our history of persecution and survival. But Abraham's words in this week's sidrah remind us that our heritage of activism actually predates the Holocaust, pogroms, or even exodus from Egypt.

On hearing God's plan to destroy Sodom, Abraham refuses to let the news pass lightly. His response is introduced with the verb "vayyigash", often translated as "and he approached". But an ancient teaching recorded in the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 49:7) provides a better translation, "and he confronted". Robert Alter recently translated it, "stepped forward". Abraham was challenging the divine decree, not simply "approaching" God.

The Midrash reminds us that "vayyigash" is used this way several times in the Bible, including Joab's confrontation to initiate war (I Chronicles 19:14), Judah's confrontation to appease Joseph (Genesis 44:18) and Elijah's confrontation in prayer. So what can we learn from Abraham's confrontation, a longstanding tradition of wrestling with difficult issues and volunteering in Uganda and beyond?

We were born to challenge. Blessed with a stubborn and principled determination, we can choose how to channel it to achieve enormous things. But if we used it inappropriately, we can sink to the unpleasant and destructive battles that often plague our communities, families or friendships.

Alternatively, we can choose the more productive path displayed by Abraham and so many others who sought determined and fearless activism to make the world a better place. Following Abraham's example, we too can stand up to even the greatest challenges of our time.

Last updated: 5:16pm, November 13 2008