Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag, in what has been turned into one of my students’ favorite songs, said in Pirkei Avot, “turn it, for everything is in it.” Unfortunately, not everything is this palatable. This week’s portion, Vayera, brings us some of the most difficult episodes in the story of our people.
In one of the most disturbing scenes, God tells Abraham that God is going to destroy the towns of Sodom and Gemorrah. In Chapter 18, God actually ponders giving Abraham a heads up, like the way a parent might try to consult a child before taking some action in order to teach the child a lesson. (I suspect that God was going to do what God wanted to do regardless of what Abraham had said.)
And Abraham, like any child, questions the parent and starts to bargain. If I do my homework, can I stay up 30 minutes later? 15 minutes later? If I can find 50 righteous people, can you save the cities? How about 40? 30? 20? 10? Maybe this a test of Abraham to see what kind of compassionate person he can be? We know what happens, Abraham cannot find 10 righteous people — I can only imagine that by “people” the text means “adults” and the towns are destroyed. But what did they do that was so bad?
Here we will have to look to the commentary.
I remember seeing a movie once that was supposed to have taken place in Sodom. I can’t remember the name, but it was one of those really campy films of the 60s or 70s. People were wild, running rampant, killing, raping, stealing, you name it. But the rabbis are much kinder.
In the 9th century, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer says: The leaders of Sodom made a proclamation in which they declared, “Anyone who gives even a loaf of bread to the poor or the needy shall be put to death by fire.” In the same compilation we hear Rabbi Joshua ben Korchah comment that the leaders of Sodom appointed judges who were dishonest. Avraham Ibn Ezra in the 12th Century comments that not one citizen of Sodom protested the cruel treatment of strangers. Instead they remain silent.
So why were these people killed according to the Rabbis?
- They refused to change evil laws.
- Good people chose indifference.
- They refused to share their wealth and riches.
- They didn’t care for the sick.
- They didn’t care for the poor or needy.
- The leaders were greedy.
- The were unwelcoming to the stranger.
- The courts offered no fair treat for victims of oppression or injustice.
- They made fun of those in need rather than helping to make their lives better.
This is a far cry from the cheesy movie that I saw. There is no mention of overt violence or womanizing. In creating the midrash, reading between the lines, the rabbis instilled their own values, painting a picture of how we should live by examining the misdeeds of the residents of Sodom and Gemorrah.. Perhaps in explaining the destruction in this way, they could hope for a better world. But, in fact, the rabbis’ analysis sounds more like a episode of Law and Order, ripped from the headlines. No healthcare for the poor, judges siding with corporations, states being unwelcoming to immigrants.
For me, the irony is that I am writing this from a coffee shop with free wifi because I do not have any electricity in my home. Sandy roared through the big city and blew out the Con Ed station. The one station that powers so much of lower Manhattan. And it is in this time that I have found much kindest amongst the New Yorkers I have met. People have been extremely welcoming.
As we go into this darkest time of the year (figuratively, I hope), I wonder, what signs will we miss? Will we look for the positive and prevent the negative, or will we as a society be wrapped up in our own needs? As the economy struggles to find strong footing, will we help those in need? I cannot help thinking that it is no coincidence that this portion appears right before election day as a reminder to us about how we can change the world.
As Arik Einstein wrote: Ani v’atah n’shaneh et ha-olam. You and I can change the world. Let’s just make sure we change it for good.