Thursday, October 25, 2007

PARASHAT VAYEIRA: Why Destroy Sodom? by Daniel Pinner


A lot of you may not know Daniel Pinner or what happened to him, but he is a hero of Israel. He is a modest electrician who helped to wire the old hotel in Gaza where th protesters against the Gush Katif removal stayed. While he was there, he was attacked by a group of Arabs, he shot his gun into the air to scare them away (and save his life!), and then, months later, an arab with no physical evidence to back him up, claimed Daniel shot him in the leg. The kangaroooooo court of Israel sentenced Daniel, and he served his time (time he shouldn't have served).

During that time, Daniel began sending out weekly commentary on the Parsha, and I became addicted to his wonderful commentaries.

Here is his latest:

“Hashem said: Because of the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah – because it is great; and their sin – because it is terribly heavy; I will descend now and see. If it is according to its cry which has come to me – then obliteration!” (Genesis 18:20).

Clearly, the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah did not begin that day; evil always builds up gradually, over years, over generations. What had happened at just this historical juncture to push G-d over the edge, so to speak? What final red line had been crossed, that Sodom and Gomorrah were irretrievably doomed this day?

To answer this question, it is best to examine the one man in Sodom whom we know most intimately – Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Parashat Vayeira gives some very clear, if very subtle, insights into Lot’s personality; and perhaps surprisingly, when Lot is compared with his uncle Abraham, Lot emerges as a great tzaddik. A flawed tzaddik, to be sure, but a tzaddik nonetheless.

The Parashah opens when “Hashem appeared to him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre, when he was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the hottest time of the day” (Genesis 18:1). The immediately preceding verses narrate Abraham’s circumcising himself and his household (17:23-27), so our Parashah begins immediately after the circumcision – according to the Gemara (Bava Metzi’a 86b), on the third day after, when the wound is most painful. Despite his pain, and despite the fierce heat of the desert sun, when Abraham saw three men – whom he did not yet know were angels – “he ran towards them from the entrance of the tent” (18:2). This is the paradigm for the generations of hachnasat or’chim – welcoming guests, hospitality: Abraham displayed tremendous mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) in this episode.

Several hours later, that evening, two of those angels arrived in Sodom (19:1), “and Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom; and Lot saw, and he rose up towards them, and he bowed, face to the ground. And he said: Behold, now, my masters – turn aside, please, to your servant’s house…” (19:1-2). Inviting indigent guests was an offence punishable by death in Sodom: “They promulgated a decree in Sodom: anyone who would offer solace to one who was poor or hungry by giving him a loaf of bread would be burnt by fire” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 25). Hence Lot risked his very life by inviting these two men home – far greater self-sacrifice than his uncle Abraham had displayed earlier that day.

Abraham invited the three men into his tent with the very modest words, “Let a little water be brought now for you to wash your feet, and rest under the tree; and I will bring a loaf of bread for you to eat – and then pass on” (Genesis 18:4-5). In the event, Abraham told his wife Sarah to make cakes from three se’ah of flour; three se’ah is equivalent to about 25 litres (61⁄2 US gallons), which gives an idea of the size of the feast that Abraham prepared. And this was just the appetizer! He also prepared an entire calf – a veritable feast fit for a king. This is the paradigm for Shammai’s famous dictum, “say little and do much” (Pirkei Avot 1:15). Or, in the words of Rabbi Elazar, “From here we learn that tzaddikim say little and do much” (Bava Metzi’a 87a).

That evening, in Sodom, Lot invited the two men into his house with an even more modest invitation: “Behold now, my lords, turn aside please to your servant’s house; rest, wash your feet, get up early and go on your way” (19:2). Lot did not mention so much as a slice of bread or a cup of water. But when they reached his house, “he made a feast for them, and he baked matzot, and they ate” (verse 3).

And on the phrase “he baked matzot,” Rashi makes a laconic, yet immensely revealing, statement: “it was Pesach”. (The Talmud and the Midrashim are consistent about the chronology: the angel promised Sarah that she would bear her son Isaac exactly one year hence [18:10]; the 400 years of Abraham’s seed living as “strangers in a land not their own” [15:13] began with the birth of Isaac and finished with the Exodus from Egypt. Since the Exodus occurred on the fifteenth of Nisan, Isaac was born 400 years to the day earlier, i.e. also on the fifteenth of Nisan. And since the angelic prophecy to Sarah was one year to the day before Isaac was born, this episode also happened on the fifteenth of Nisan.) This is an incredible tribute to Lot, putting him on the level of the Forefathers: just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob kept the mitzvot before the Torah was yet given, so did Lot.

No less important in testifying that Lot was a tzaddik is that he succeeded in bringing up his children in the same righteous path. His daughter, Plotit (Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 83) or Pleitit (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 25, Targum Yonatan to Genesis 18:21) who was married to one of the chieftains of Sodom, was executed for the “crime” of feeding a poor man; she had clearly absorbed the lessons of self-sacrifice and caring for strangers that she had learned from her father Lot. And his two remaining daughters and his wife were all given the ultimate seal of approval from G-d Himself, Who decreed that they all be spared from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Had there been but nine more like Lot, they would have saved the entire metropolis.

And now, we can take a closer look at the interaction between Lot and his adopted home town. When Abraham’s and Lot’s herdsmen could no longer get along with each other, Abraham decided that their paths must part; “If you take left then I will go right, and if you take the right, them I will go left. And Lot raised his eyes and saw that the entire Jordan plain was well-watered – before Hashem destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah – like the garden of Hashem… So Lot chose for himself the entire Jordan plain…and they parted from each other… Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain and encamped as far as Sodom. The people of Sodom were exceedingly evil and sinful to Hashem” (Genesis 13:9-13).

Almost quarter of a century passed from this event until the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: in the intervening time, Abraham dwelt ten years in Canaan (16:3), his concubine Hagar then bore him Ishmael, and he was circumcised at thirteen years (17:25); then came the destruction. Clearly, enough time had passed for Lot to acclimatise and become accepted in Sodom. So accepted, indeed, that the people of Sodom had appointed Lot as judge. “Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom” (19:1), and the gate of the city was traditionally where judges sat: “That very day he had been appointed as the highest judge; there were five chief judges in Sodom…Lot was above them all” (Genesis Rabbah 50:3). This was why, when Lot urged the Sodomites not to violate his two guests, their response was: “This one has come here to sojourn, and he judges us as a judge!” (19:9), which the Targum Yonatan renders: “This one came to live among us, and behold – he has become a judge, and he is judging us all”.

And this is puzzling. The selfsame day that Lot was appointed judge was the day that G-d decreed that the outcry and the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah had become so intolerable that the only recourse was total destruction. It would seem logical that Lot’s appointment as judge in Sodom should be a reason for G-d to grant an extension of His mercy. Surely, when a tzaddik becomes judge, the metropolis has a chance of repenting.

Apparently the reverse is true. When a city’s laws are evil and the judges are corrupt, then somehow people can survive; sometimes two negatives do make a positive. When all the judges are corrupt, then it is no shame or disgrace to be convicted in court: everyone knows that the defendant was only convicted because he did not have sufficient protektziya, or did not bribe the judge enough, or subscribed to the wrong ideology. And anyway, in a totally corrupt justice system, it is sometimes possible to buy justice: an innocent man might be able to bribe the judge to acquit him.

But when a tzaddik becomes judge in an evil system, all hope is lost. The tzaddik will enforce the evil laws without taking bribes; to be convicted by a tzaddik is a genuine disgrace; the tzaddik will show no favouritism, and will not allow his personal ideology to interfere in the due process of the law. Even though he personally may object to a specific law, once he becomes part of the evil legal system he will inexorably enforce all its laws without exception.

The place to find this interpretation is not in the Gemara or the Midrash, nor in the writings of Rashi or the Rambam or any of our sages. Rather, the place to see the inevitable truth of this is in any court of law in modern Israel when Jews accused of “nationalist crimes” are tried by religious judges. And in the same way, every JDL-nik in New York always knew that the worst-case scenario was to come up for trial before a religious Jewish judge.

Indeed, it is when the tzaddik enforces the laws that the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah becomes unbearably great, their sin becomes unbearably heavy, and the only recourse is total obliteration.


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