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Parashat Vayera 5775 — 11/05/2014

Parashat Vayera 5775 — 11/05/2014

So Abram said to Lot … Please separate from me; If you go left then I will go right, and if you go right then I will go left.

So Lot raised his eyes and saw the entire plain of the Jordan that it was w ell watered everywhere – before Hashem destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah – like the garden of Hashem, like the land of Egypt going towards Tzoar.  So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed from the east; thus they parted, each man from upon his brother.  (13:8-11)

Most of us are familiar with the fact that before we say HaMotzi Lechem min haAretz and break bread, we must wash our hands.  The reason for this is that the Rabbis instituted a form of ritual impurity (tumah) that affects the hands and must be rinesed away before eating bread.  The reason is because certain kinds of foods have a level of holiness that renders them disqualified if a person who is ritually impure touches them.

Less familiar, perhaps, is the halachah that one must wash ones hands again after eating.  This latter washing is called mayim acharonim or “after waters,” and it was instituted because the Sages were concerned that people would get “salt of Sodom” on their hands during the meal, and if they then touched their eyes, it could cause blindness.

I want to interject a point here.  We don’t know exactly what “Sodom salt” is, or was, but it’s a safe guess to say that we don’t have it here in North America, 10,000 km from the Jordan River watershed.  In addition, I don’t think there is any medical evidence of salt’s causing blindness, let alone a salt residue on our hands.  Yet the halachah still is binding.  Why should that be?  We’ll get an insight into this question when we get to Rav Kook’s explanation, but suffice it to say that just because we don’t understand the Sages’ explanations, or think they don’t apply any more, or apply to us, doesn’t mean that we have plumbed the depths of their reasoning, nor does it give us leave to decide that their enactments can be ignored.  One example before we return to our main theme: In those years where Rosh haShanah falls on Shabbat, we don’t blow the shofar.  The stated reason is that we might come to carry it in the public domain to bring it to someone who knows how to blow it so that we may learn.  But suppose the shofar is in the synagogue, ready to be blown for the congregation?  Further, suppose the city is joined in an eruv chatzeirot, in which case carrying is permitted?  Why should we not blow, as we are commanded to in the Torah?  One answer might be that the call of the shofar is really a crying out to Gd, a wordless prayer expressing our pain at our self-imposed separation from Gd.  Such cries are inappropriate for Shabbat, which is a “taste of the World-to-Come,” the world of perfection.  Why didn’t the Sages tell us this explicitly?  I don’t know – maybe they left it as an “exercise for the student.”  Likely there are many more layers of meaning behind this enactment, and all the enactments that define the life of an observant Jew, that serve to align his thinking and behavior with Gd’s Will.  Until and unless we’re at the level of the Sages, they could talk themselves blue in the face and we still wouldn’t get it.  But if we have a little trust and follow their guidelines, we might get to that point.

Now, what is the deeper meaning of “salt of Sodom”?  Rav Kook explains:

In order to answer these questions, we must first understand the root source of Sodom’s immorality.  The people of Sodom were obsessed with fulfilling their physical desires.  They concentrated on self-gratification to such a degree that no time remained for kindness towards others…

   A certain spiritual peril lurks in any meal that we eat.  Our involvement in gastronomic pleasures inevitably increases the value we assign to such activities, and decreases the importance of spiritual activites, efforts that truly perfect us.  As a preventive measure, the Sages decreed that we should wash our hands before eating … The physical meal we are about to partake suddenly takes on a spiritual dimension.

   Despite this preparation, our involvement in the physical act of eating will reduce our sense of holiness to some degree.  To counteract this negative influence, we wash our hands after the meal … we wash away the salt of Sodom, the residue of selfish preoccupation in sensual pleasures … which can blind our eyes to the needs of others.  (Gold from the Land of Israel)

Now Lot is our connection to Sodom.  In last week’s portion it is related that Avraham asked Lot to separate from him.  What had happened?  The hint is on the return from Egypt, Lot is noted to have become quite wealthy, and together he and Avraham have too many animals for the carrying capacity of the land. Avraham tells Lot to choose which way he wants to go, and Lot goes for the gold, so to speak, choosing to live in Sodom despite being quite aware of the low spiritual level of the inhabitants.  He makes the physical primary, and the spiritual secondary.

The main trouble with such an approach is that it actually doesn’t mesh with reality.  Every spiritual tradition, and increasingly modern physics as well, describes manifest reality as a layered structure, with more subtle, abstract layers underlying the grosser, more physical layers.  In terms of our tradition, our soul, our spiritual essence, is infinite and eternal, while our body of course is finite and mortal.  Our soul inhabits our body so that it can perform action in the physical world to allow it to reflect Gd’s perfection.  This works great when we remember that the soul is primary and the  body is quite secondary.  When we get things inverted, like Lot did, we get into a lot of trouble.  When things get totally out of hand, as they did in Sodom, the entire structure collapses.

Our society, in many ways, makes the same mistake that the Sodomites made.  Instead of seeing things like food and medical care as a person’s right, we have commoditised everything, essentially telling ourselves that the wealthy have more of a right to live than the poor.  We do incredibly harmful things to ourselves and to the environment in the name of short-term profit.  At the rate we are going, Gd may very well not have to send fire and brimstone down on us – we may do the job for Him.  We would all do well to take Lot’s and Sodom’s fate as a cautionary tale and re-evaluate our own attitude towards the material world.


The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 4: Building a Society of Freedom

Just before the Exodus we are commanded, “This month [i.e. Nisan, the month of Passover] shall be the first month for you.”  The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, while our civil calendar is a solar calendar.  Our Sages tell us that the significance of this distinction is that the sun is always “on” – it is static and constant.  The moon, on the other hand, waxes and wanes, constantly renewing itself.  Indeed, the Hebrew word for “month” – chodesh – is from the same root as the word for “new” – chadash.

I mention this as a lead-in to Rabbi Sacks’ main point in this essay – the great innovation (chidush) of the Jewish people.  He points out that both physically and symbolically, our beginnings as a people involved moving away from the two great empires of the time: Avraham left Mesopotamia and Moshe and the people of Israel left Egypt.  These empires were structured as rigid hierarchies, with a small class of the wealthy and powerful ruling over vast hordes of slaves, who were barely classed as human beings and certainly had no rights.  This structure was held to be immutable, built into the structure of the universe and endorsed by the pantheon of gods.  Lest this seem long ago in a galaxy far away, the “divine right of kings” didn’t start fading from Western European thought until the last two or three hundred years.

The great innovation that the Jewish people brought to the world is that every individual is valuable, because every individual has a unique and irreplaceable role to play in actualizing Gd’s plan for creation.  No human being may be treated as an object by another human being.  Not only are we commanded to love our neighbors, our brothers, we are commanded even more strongly to love the stranger, the outsider, the one who doesn’t fit in, who perhaps isn’t going to be just another cog in the wheel of society.  “For there is no one who doesn’t have his hour.” (Avot 4:3)  Every life is precious to Gd, and every life should be precious to us.  This is a lesson we still have not internalized, and which we ignore to our increasing peril.