Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

November 13, 2011

Abraham vs. Sodom – A Call to Action

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 2:35 am
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This is a time of year marked by sharp contrasts and quick changes.    Within the past week, the days have gotten markedly shorter, the temperature has dipped,  a few weeks ago we had to take out our snow boots even before we’d packed up our flip flops – only to take them out again for this week’s balmy breezes. Over the past weeks, as Jews the world over began their annual cycle of weekly Torah readings, we have read the biblical account of the world’s miraculous creation, and its virtually total destruction, the ark that saved us, and the rainbow’s eternal promise.

This week’s Torah reading – Vayera– offers no shortage of contrasts.  We travel from Abraham’s tent, to Sodom, to the plains where Lot’s wife turned to salt, to Avimelech’s kingdom, to the dessert of Beer Sheva to the mountain where Abraham brings his son for the Akedah sacrifice.   Many  commentaries address the contrast between the opening setting of this Torah reading:  Abraham’s tent – and the following scene – the evil city of Sodom.

Most commentary remarks  on the difference between the kindness of Abraham – who opens his tent to three visitors who turn out to actually be Angels of God,  as diametrically opposed to the greeting guests can expect in the evil village of Sodom.  Rabbi Kaminetsky suggests that this contrast is necessary  – we need to see the generosity of Abraham to truly perceive the cruelty of Sodom.    In fact,  psychological theory and the science of perception would agree – the human mind is more able to judge evil, when it is juxtaposed with kindness.  A study asked people to read a story about an individual who behaved in an ambiguoius manner, one might consider it either kind or cruel, depending on the context.  If prior to reading the story, individuals where shown the name “Hitler” they were more likely to label the character in the story as kind.  They were able to see his actions as distinct from those of a recognized villian.

Clearly the  journey of God’s angels from the hospitality of Abraham’s tent, to the rejecting coldness of Sodom, is a huge contrast.  I would like to suggest the clash of worlds between Abraham’s tent and Sodom–often discussed as the difference between a world of kindness and a culture of depravity  – is most importantly a contrast between passivity or inaction vs. action and engagement.

We are told in multiple sources, that Sodom was the epitome of evil.  Of the many evils and injustices for which Sodom earned its reputation, what was the reason for its destruction?    In the Biblical book of Ezekiel we are told: This was the sin of Sodom, your sister, she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of bread and peaceful serenity,  but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy (16:49).

The Ramban, a great Biblical commentator explains that the reference in last week’s Torah reading “and the people of Sodom were evil and sinned greatly against God”   refers to this same fact – that they persecuted the poor.    Similarly, Rabbenu Yonah, the 13th century sage wrote in his book Sharei Teshuva  that although we find a multitude of sins attributed to Sodom, their annihilation occurred NOT because of what they did, but because of what they failed to do, they did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy.

The people of Sodom were selfish. The Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter Five   describes as Midat S’dom – or the philosophy of Sodom as  “what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.  This is interpreted to mean NOT that I will leave your  property undisturbed, but rather, I am totally and utterly self-focused, I have no concern for you or yours.  I will not share what is mine, and you are irrelevant.

Why did this attitude warrant the destruction of the city of Sodom?     Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, an early 20th century Torah scholar suggests that the sin of Sodom was a passivity that kills.  When a severely destitute person cries for help, Rabbi Meltzer explains, his very life depends on the charity of others.  Without support, food, water, shelter, he will not survive.  Inaction in the face of such pain, suffering, and possible fatal consequences, is in direct contradiction to the biblical precept –  “Do not stand by while the blood of your brother is shed”.  In fact, the Tur, in his writings in Yorah Deah (247:1) urges that we be exceedingly careful about the commandment to give charity, since a delay can lead to the death of the poor.

The city of Sodom created a culture, an ethos, where not only was it acceptable to be passive, to stand idly by while others suffered, it was expected, and any deviation was punished.  Tradition tells of a young woman in Sodom who responded to a beggar’s cries of hunger and gives her bread, only to be put to death by Sodom’s courts.

In sharp contrast to the enforced passivity of Sodom, never still for a moment in this week’s Biblical reading, is the partriarch Abraham.  Whether he is running to get a calf to serve his guests, challenging God’s judgement of Sodom , , sending Hagar and Ishmael away , bringing Issac to the sacrifice, Abraham is clearly a man of action.  He acts on behalf of others, he acts in response to God’s wishes, he acts when there is a need.    Abraham never wonders if someone else will argue for Sodom, or questions whether it is really his job, even as he is recovering from his circumcision, to be running to entertain guests.  Abraham sees a need, and he responds.

I believe this is the lesson of this week’s Torah reading, from its ancient stories, this is its modern message.  The need for action.  I had been asked to speak about this, and composed my remarks long before the Penn State scandals hit the news, but they are chilling reminders of what evil can accomplish when left unchecked, when it is met with the passivity, the inaction, the silence of Sodom.

Social psychologists have extensively studied the bystander inaction phenomenon.  This is the tendency for people, when in a group, and confronted with a crisis, to do absolutely nothing.  The infamous Kitty Genovese story had dozens of witnesses , yet none called the police, each thinking someone else would do it.  How many knew of Hitler’s evils – individuals and communities – and assumed it was another’s responsibility to  intervene?

If we are lucky, most of us will never find ourselves bystanders in situations that call for desperate measures.  We will not be called upon to make Abraham’s sacrifices, or mount his arguments.  But when we do not feel compelled by such urgency, it can become all too easy for us to move passively through life, falling into bystander apathy.  When we are blessed with lives of comfort, rarely if ever hearing the true cries of crisis, our senses can become dulled.  Yet I believe the message of  this week’s Torah reading is that even the smallest acts of charity are a powerful antidote to the inaction that allows evil to exist in the world.

Einstein said – the world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.  This week’s reading reminds us that the Midat S’dom, the ways of Sodom, are dangerous, a passive life is an evil life. Abraham shows us that a life lived actively, a life in which one challenges evil,  a life where one deliberately and purposefully opens their tent and offers charity, caring and kindness – is a life that changes the world.    Anne Frank, from her hiding place, as the Nazis advanced through Europe wrote with teenage exuberance

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world”.

This week’s reading of Parashat Vayera is our call to action.  This is our world, and this is our moment.  There are cries to be heard and kindnesses to be done. Let’s not wait.  Let’s not be still or silent.





1 Comment »

  1. I did read so much “knowledge” in every word! Whether in the delicious stories and pictures, or, the intelligent discussions of biblical , and/or, current events, I’m informed and entertained all at the same time! May all of your words continue to do that for every reader. With love, E. and S.

    Comment by E and S Milch — November 15, 2011 @ 3:07 pm |Reply

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