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Parashat 10/21/2010

Parashat Vayera

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Last week we discussed the influence of the environment on our spiritual standing.  This week we continue to the dénouement of the stories of both Lot and Sodom, and we will make some additional observations on this same theme.

Our story begins with the appearance of three “men” at the door of Avraham’s tent.  These “men” are actually 3 angels, each with his own mission: Rafael (from the root r-f-a = to heal) to heal Avraham after his circumcision; Michael, who announced the impending birth of Yitzchak to Sarah (Gd had already informed Avraham); and Gavriel (from the root g-b-r = strength, and associated with the Attribute of Justice) to overthrow Sodom and its associated cities.  Of the 3, Rafael, who is also assigned to save Lot and his family from the coming disaster in Avraham’s merit, and Gavriel head off to Sodom to complete their assignments.  When they approach the city Lot, recently appointed to be a judge in Sodom, invites the “angels” to spend the night with him.  Rashi points out (to 19:1):

Above [when they came to Avraham’s tent] they were called anashim [“men”]; when the Shechinah was with them they were called “men.”  Or, by Avraham who was stronger [i.e. on a higher spiritual plane than Lot] there were angels around all the time like men, but by Lot they are called angels.

This phenomenon may be similar to the debate on Noach’s status as discussed in the opening verses of Parashat Noach: “Noach was an ish tzaddik tamim in his generations…”  Rashi on this verse (6:9) says:

“In his generations”: Some of our Sages teach this as praise – certainly if he had been in a generation of tzaddikim he would have been a greater tzaddik.  Some teach this as denigration – in comparison to his generation he was a tzaddik; had he lived in Avraham’s generation he wouldn’t have been considered anything [special].

Apparently everything we evaluate is colored by the environment we are in (and which we create as well).  As a wise man once said [paraphrase], In a smoky room nobody can see clearly.  In particular, our evaluation of phenomena is colored by the background against which we perceive them.

This environment is created by the collective thinking and activity of the people in the location under consideration.  Thus when Avraham is “bargaining” with Gd he specifically mentions that the righteous people must be found “within” the city.  If the righteous hold themselves aloof from the life of the city, they are unable to have much of an influence on their surroundings.  Rather they must teach by word and example and offer criticism where that is necessary.  Otherwise the community continues on its course and suffers the consequences of its activity.  As our Sages tell us, he who is in a position to protest the activity going on around him (on whatever level – family, workplace, city, nation) and does not, is held responsible for the sin that he let slide.  Additionally, he is likely to be caught up in the general conflagration – Lot was saved only in Avraham’s merit (19:29) and not his own.

Finally, some words about Sodom and why it was destroyed.  According to our Sages, Sodom was not destroyed because of sodomy; rather it was destroyed because the strong took advantage of the weak.  People were treated as objects to be made use of, either economically or otherwise.  And this evil was institutionalized.  For example, in Pirke Avot (5:13) we read: “Four types of natures: … One who says ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’ – this is the ordinary average person, but some say, this is the nature of Sodom.”  In another place we are told that Sodom was destroyed because its citizens insisted in all cases on their strict rights under the law.  (Measure for measure then, Gd exacted His full rights under the law!)

The Midrash tells us that in Sodom if a vendor came to town selling produce, the residents would each steal a little bit – less than one could claim recompense for in court, until the person was left with nothing at all.  It was forbidden to give a poor person food.  When a young lady was discovered sneaking bread to a beggar she was covered with honey and stung to death by bees.  All in accordance with the law.

Perhaps this is the ultimate reason for Sodom’s destruction, and it is a lesson we should all take very much to heart with Election Day just around the corner.  The Jewish view of the law is that it is a mechanism for our Divine nature to rule over our animal nature.  Speaking about even the evil, murderous Roman government, R. Chanina said: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for if people did not fear it people would eat each other alive.”  Gd’s Law as revealed to us in Torah is full of compassion, constantly exhorting us to treat the poor and the vulnerable with compassion, to open our hand and give, rather than grabbing whatever we can.  When this vision of the law is perverted to enshrine greed, to condone immorality, to give cover to bribery, then we truly have a modern-day Sodom, no matter what high-sounding phrases are used to cover it up.  The economic, environmental and political problems we face, the tattered fabric of our society, the apparent inability to have civil discourse with one another, are all ultimately spiritual problems, for we have created a world-wide environment where our Divine nature is hidden under deep, Venus-like clouds of consumerism and triviality.  If we, the Jewish people, are to be a light unto the nations, the “50 righteous ones” in a world full of falsehood, we had better start with ourselves, devoting our energies to that which really matters in life – our souls.  Then the clouds will part and we will all bask in the “light of the seven days of creation which was hidden away for the righteous.”