Parenting By Parsha: Vayera

My toddler is a master negotiator. Even in situations that I didn’t know were up to negotiation or questioning — it can feel like I’ve already lost before I’ve begun. Say, for example, I mentioned that I was getting up from the playmat for a glass of water. Not a question, right? Wrong. “No,” says our toddler. “What do you mean, ‘no’?” I reply, only to hear another solid, “no,” without hesitation or explanation. In this (totally hypothetical) case, I’d probably just get up anyway, despite the dismay of the little one. If he kept protesting, maybe I’d offer a compromise, like one more book or another few seconds before going. 

That’s a simple one. Now try to get him to brush his teeth, put on his socks and shoes, and get in the stroller. Much luck to you — each one of those items is an opportunity for debate.

Our kid knows what he wants and how he wants it. If a spoon is the wrong color or I missed a page when I’m reading Green Eggs and Ham, he will let me know. I love that about him — decisiveness is a great quality in a person, and it’s something I hope he retains as he gets older. Those gut feelings we have as kids tend to get lost as we get older, they hide under layers of inhibitions, shame, guilt, and perceived societal expectations. Which of us adults would feel comfortable demanding a different color spoon? No one. Who is even connected to themselves in a way that allows them to know exactly what they want in each moment? Not me. 

Still, while I admire my kid’s tenacity and decisiveness, it’s exhausting. I don’t want to discuss the pros and cons of stroller vs. walking when we’re late — I just want to get a move on. 

Within all of this, my wife and I have introduced the concept of compromising. When we compromise, we explain when this happens, no one gets everything they want, but everyone gets something. So, for instance, when it’s bath-time and he wants to put his toy broom in the tub that’s a hard no. When we express that the bathtub is no place for brooms, though, our kiddo might get upset, which is when we’d introduce the concept of compromise. “What if,” I’d say, “you take your broom into the bathroom and lean it up against the wall? Then you can see it from the bathtub.”

Usually, he’s pretty amenable to this type of solution, for which I thank my lucky stars. 

All of this was running through my mind as I read the weekly portion, Vayera, because this is the portion wherein Abraham negotiates with God for the first time. Thus far, we’ve seen Abraham as a pretty obedient servant to the Lord — up to and including getting a circumcision as a nonagenarian and leaving his homeland for the wilderness. This portion opens on a picture of deference and respect as well. Three angels wander towards Abraham’s tent, where he jumps up and offers them a place to wash their feet and treats them as honored guests — despite still recovering from the aforementioned geriatric circumcision. When the angels (who he thinks are regular messengers) tell him that his elderly wife, Sarah, will give birth in a year he accepts this as a statement of fact. Sarah laughs, famously, but Abraham is nonplussed. Sure, his affect seems to say, why wouldn’t we have a baby in our late 90s?

This is when it gets crunchy, though. Because that’s when the messengers head to Sodom and Gomorrah. What follows is… not great. 

God has already decided that these cities have got to go. They’re just too evil and, having read the story of Noah’s generation a few portions back, we know what God’s solution for people who have gone too far is likely to be. This time, however, is different. His track record for standing up to God notwithstanding, Abraham finally seems to have found his voice in this text. He steps up. 

“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” he asks God, “What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?” (Genesis 18:23-24)

It’s a good argument, one that Abraham adds to by admonishing God for even thinking such a thing, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You!” he says in Genesis 18:25, and I can almost hear him adding a tsk-tsk or a click of the tongue. 

God listens. He challenges Abraham to find 50 innocent people. When that proves impossible, they move the bar to 40. That many innocents can’t be found, so the bar gets pushed down to 30, and then to 20. Finally, after a grueling negotiation on behalf of the potential innocents of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham turns to God one last time. “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time,” he says, “What if ten should be found there?” Okay, God agrees, ten is my final offer. 

This passage has always seemed pretty wild to me. Beyond the fact that Abraham is contradicting God, it’s interesting that God respects Abraham enough to request input on His plans. In Genesis 18:17, He wonders aloud about hiding His plans for destruction from Abraham. It’s almost as though they’re partners in an endeavor. There’s certainly a hierarchy in this partnership, but it’s still a cooperative effort. Together, they plan to make Abraham a “great and populous nation and [for] all the nations of the earth to bless themselves by him.” (Genesis 18:18) Cooperative efforts demand a degree of transparency, and God is realizing that. 

I think that this level of candor and this spirit of alliance are what allow the two to disagree on the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah as well. After all, an amount of trust is necessary in order to work in tandem with any success. Trust means disagreeing sometimes and knowing that it’s alright, the other entity will still be there when the dust settles. 

I’m going to try to take this understanding of collaboration back to my parenting toolbox. When my kid disagrees with me, maybe there’s a reason for me to revisit my actions. Maybe I didn’t give him enough of a heads up before we transitioned to a new activity, or I wasn’t being present with him. Recognizing that raising a person to adulthood is a collaboration between kiddo and their adult(s) brings a level of humility and trust to the relationship that, I hope, will make the negotiations a little less maddening. There’s a hierarchy of sorts in this partnership as well. But we’re still in it together, and that makes it easier.