Fire and Brimstone

Thoughts on Vayera (2010/5711)  (Gen. 18:1 – 22:4)

(Dvar Torah delivered at Temple Israel on 10/22/10)

I’m not generally a “fire and brimstone” sort of preacher  --  but this week’s Torah portion is, in fact, our quintessential “fire and brimstone” parasha.   In Parshat Vayera, we read of God’s plan to destroy the evil cities of the plain and of Abraham’s efforts to stop the destruction – with Abraham audaciously challenging God:  הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט /“Hashofet kawl ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat?!”/ “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”  (Gen. 18: 25). 

We all know the story --- Abraham gets God to agree that if 50 good people can be found there that the cities would be spared – then bargains God down to a minyan of 10.  But even 10 can’t be found and the fire and brimstone --- or as the Torah has it גָּפְרִית וָאֵשׁ /gafrit va’esh”/ “brimstone and fire” (Gen. 19:24) is unleashed upon Sodom and Gomorrah.  Angelic messengers rescue Lot and his household from the destruction, but Lot’s wife looks back and is transformed into a pillar of salt. 

How do we get to that horrific impasse?  The homophobes and gay-bashers of the world would blame it on the alleged homosexuality of the townspeople who demand that the messengers visiting Lot be brought out to them.  However, the Torah text itself seems pretty clear that it’s attempted rape which is the real problem. 

Rape is fundamentally about violence and intimidation, not about sexuality.  Traditional Jewish commentaries about the sin of Sodom understand this. 

Rape has been and continues to be used as an ugly weapon of war in certain conflicts around the globe today – and that’s the sort of scenario present in the Torah’s account of the actions of the people of Sodom.  They sought to rape the two visitors who had come to Lot’s home as a tactic of intimidation so that no one would dare offer hospitality to strangers.  Lot himself was a foreigner in the city of Sodom and his efforts at hospitality flew in the face of that society’s brutish selfishness.  Sodom was the place where showing hospitality to strangers was taboo, as evidenced by the people of Sodom’s retort to Lot – “This fellow Lot comes here to stay a while and now he wants to act the judge!  Well, we will make it worse for you than for them!”  (Gen. 19:9).

What was the sin of Sodom?  In Ezekiel chapter 16 we read:

“[49] Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. [50] In their haughtiness, they committed abomination before Me; and so I removed them, as you saw.”

The midrashic imagination goes to town here – let me share a few midrashim about the sinful nature of Sodom that we find in the collection The Book of Legends (Sefer Ha-Aggadah).  (This is a book of classic rabbinic lore from Talmud and midrash that was collected and thematically organized by Bialik and Ravnitsky and published in modern Hebrew in 1908 through 1911.  The quotes below are from the English translation of William Braude, published by Schocken Books in 1992): 

“…So the [inhabitants of] Sodom said, ‘We live in peace and plenty – food can be got from our land, gold and silver can be mined from our land, precious stones and pearls can be obtained from our land.  What need have weto look after wayfarers, who come to us only to deprive us?  Come, let us see to it that the duty of entertaining foot travelers be forgotten in our land, as is said, “They who keep aloof from [wayfaring] men, turning away [in disdain] from them, had come to forget utterly [their duty toward] foot travelers.” (Job 28:4”)… (Book of Legends 36:30)”

“In Sodom they had a bed on which wayfarers were made to lie.  If a wayfarer was too long for the bed, they cut him down to fit it.  If he was too short, they stretched his limbs until he filled it….”

"When a poor man came to the land of Sodom, each Sodomite would give him a denar with the Sodomite’s name inscribed on it, but not one of them would sell him a morsel of bread to eat.  Eventhually, when the poor man died of hunger, each Sodomite would come to claim his denar.  There was a maiden in Sodom who once brought a morsel of bread concealed in her pitcher to a poor man.  When three days passed and the poor man did not die, the reason for his staying alive became clear.  The Sodomites smeared the maiden with honey and placed her on a rooftop, so that bees cam eand stung her to death…

“It was proclaimed in Sodom, ‘He who sustains a stranger or a poor or needy person with a morsel of bread is to be burned alive.”

(Book of Legends 36:30 and 36:31, citing various Talmudic and midrashic sources)

There’s plenty more, but you get the idea…

Well, we don’t have to get all “fire and brimstone” with each other when we revisit these ancient stories, do we?  We’re not like that, are we?

And yet, our tradition challenges us to make sure that we ourselves don’t become greedy and inhospitable to those in need.  In Pirke Avot, the mishnaic era compendium of ethical teachings, the challenge is expressed like this:

ארבע מידות באדם:  האומר שלי שלי, ושלך שלך--זו מידה בינונית; ויש אומרין, זו מידת סדום.  שלי שלך, ושלך שלי--עם הארץ.  שלי שלך, ושלך שלך--חסיד.  שלך שלי, ושלי שלי--רשע.

[5:10] “There are four kinds of human beings. One says, ‘What is mine is mine and what is your is yours.’  That is the usual kind, although some say that is the Sodom kind.  [The one who says] ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine’ is an ignoramus. [The one who says] ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours’ is a saint. [And the one who says,] ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine’ is a sinner.”

(Hebrew text from, English translation from Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Texts, Kravitz and Olitzky, editors and translators, UAHC Press, 1993)

Think about that:  The usual kind of person says what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours – but some say that that is a “Sodom” type of person – i.e., one who is unwilling to help another.

I think what strikes me about this story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Torah, and of the way it has been transmitted in Jewish tradition, is the communal aspect of all of it.  The sin of Sodom is not the sin of an individual person.  Rather it’s the sin of a society. A society that doesn’t go beyond “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.”   A society that thereby shows itself to be a place of moral decay.         

Election Day is only a couple of weeks away --- and these sorts of questions ought to accompany us to the voting booth.

How can we best assure that our society – on the local, statewide and national levels – is a place where those in need find support, hospitality and kindness?

In other words, how can we make sure that our society does not become like Sodom?

Some say that the best solution is to maintain and develop governmental safety nets and economies of scale that can protect those in need.   

Others say that the best solution is to leave it to private individuals to help one another through our families, congregations and charities  --- that this works much better than leaving it to so-called “big government.”

I would like to think that the various competing political parties – and the various factions within them – share a common goal of fostering a society in which we care for one another as a matter of common decency, of common justice.  And that the differences between us are over how best to do it. 

That  all of us want to belong to a society that does not merit fire and brimstone for its sins.

I would like to think that all of us can be among those of whom the prophet Malachi says: 

אָז נִדְבְּרוּ יִרְאֵי יְהוָה, אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ; וַיַּקְשֵׁב יְהוָה, וַיִּשְׁמָע, וַיִּכָּתֵב סֵפֶר זִכָּרוֹן לְפָנָיו לְיִרְאֵי יְהוָה, וּלְחֹשְׁבֵי שְׁמוֹ

Then those who revered the Eternal talked to one another. And the Eternal listened and took note of it, and a scroll of remembrance was written before God concerning those who revered and valued God’s name. (Malachi 3:16)

Indeed, let’s debate --- and analyze --- and consider  what we need to do, then get out there and vote for the sort of society of which we can be proud.

Shabbat shalom.

Posted on October 27, 2010 .