Thursday, November 17, 2016

Paved with Gold

I retreat to the Torah. It is a welcome distraction from the news and our country’s painful divisions.

This week we read about the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are marked by sinfulness. As in the story of Noah, God decides to start all over and destroy these cities. Again God shares the plan with a chosen, and trusted, person. This time it is Abraham. God says, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (Genesis 18:17)

God reveals the plan to Abraham. But Abraham pleads in behalf of the people. Abraham argues (and negotiates) with God exacting a promise that if ten righteous people can be found then the cities should be saved. In the end Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. By the way, some suggest this number ten is the origin of ten for a minyan.

And yet the Torah is unclear about what they did that was so terrible. What were their sins? We are given only hints. “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!” (Genesis 18:20) Throughout the ages commentators have suggested that the inhabitants were guilty of sexual depravity. They cite as evidence the accompanying story that the townspeople attempt to rape the divine messengers who visit Lot, a resident of Sodom and a nephew of Abraham. This explains the English term “sodomy.”

Later the prophet Ezekiel offers more detail: “Only this was the sin of your sister city Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) He sees their sin in social terms. The cities were destroyed because of their failure to reach out to the needy and most vulnerable. There was plenty of food to share and yet they kept it all to themselves.

They were arrogant. They felt themselves superior.

The rabbis expand upon the prophet Ezekiel’s understanding. They saw the cities’ sinfulness in their treatment of others, most especially their failure to fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality and welcoming the stranger. They argue that this sin would have been understandable if Sodom and Gomorrah were poor cities, but they were in fact wealthy. The rabbis weave a midrashic story describing the streets of these cities as paved with gold (my grandfather’s goldene medina!). In addition the rabbis taught, the cities’ inhabitants flooded the cities’ entrances in an effort to prevent strangers from entering and finding refuge there.

In the rabbinic imagination, the cities were destroyed because of their own moral lapses. They were affluent. There was plenty of food for them to eat. Yet they did not share it with anyone. They hoarded it for themselves. They prevented strangers from entering their cities. They thought only of their own welfare and their own livelihood.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut argues: “The treatment accorded newcomers and strangers was then and may always be considered a touchstone of the community’s moral condition.”

And I am left to wonder. Can any retreat be found?

I search in vain for distractions.

The Torah only speaks of today. It only speaks to today.

That is its most important, and powerful, voice.

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