Va-Yera: How Do You Know?

My four-year-old grandson – to whom I haven’t even mentioned law school yet, much less explained “cross-examination” -- has picked up the habit of asking me, “How do you know?” whenever I make a statement.  It can be annoying, but it’s also a worthy reminder to “check my sources.”

This week’s Torah portion, Va-Yeira, contains a fascinating and instructive sequence (Genesis 18:16-21) that also reminds us to “check our sources” before committing to a negative opinion or action.

We are told that G-d is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (and wonders whether to inform Abraham).  We then discover how G-d has learned of the cities’ outrages; not because G-d is omniscient, but because outcries/complaints have reached G-d.   

G-d is infuriated and forms a plan to exact punishment.  But before carrying it out, are the reports true?  Perhaps they are false, exaggerated, one-sided, or manipulated?

Even though G-d has already very strongly “reacted” to the evil reports, G-d has not yet acted upon His plan.  Judgment will not be imposed until G-d “goes down to see” whether the reports are accurate. 

“I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” (Gen 18:21). 

As it happens, the reports are true, and the intended punishment is carried out (notwithstanding Abraham’s plea for leniency on behalf of the few righteous).  

Reading this account, I wondered why the Torah does not simply state that outrages occurred in Sodom, that G-d was righteously incensed, and that the deserved punishment resulted?   

Even more puzzling, if the Divine or human author(s) wanted to teach us the moral lesson that snap negative reactions – even by G-d – are ill-advised, why not choose an incident in which G-d, upon “due diligence,” discovered that the reports were false or exaggerated, and so did not follow through on the punishment?  Why choose an incident in which the evil reports were true to tell us that G-d withheld action until G-d investigated and carried through on the punishment?  

Perhaps it was to warn us that even when we form snap judgments, as is apparently as much in G-d’s nature as in ours, we must nevertheless exercise caution and investigate before taking punitive action.

I doubt that my grandson has heard the expression “Fake News.”  But he’s already learned to question bald assertions.

So much criticism that we hear or read – whether about an issue, person, or group -- is false, exaggerated, misleading, one-sided or misinformed.  Therefore, even if we are extremely angry upon learning something, it remains our responsibility to try to confirm the truth of what we have been told or read.  

We should ask (even if rhetorically), “How does the (newsbearer/reporter) know this?” Certainly before taking any negative action, we should do our best to “go down and see” (investigate) whether the claimed outrages are true. 

Shabbat shalom!  

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb