Thursday, November 14, 2019

No Retreat from the World

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 Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities are marked by sinfulness. As in the story of Noah, God decides to start all over and wipe out the sinfulness. 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)

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 is the origin of the required number of ten for a minyan.

And yet the Torah is unclear about what these cities’ inhabitants 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!” Throughout the ages commentators have suggested that the people were guilty of sexual depravity. They cite as evidence the accompanying story that the townspeople attempted 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) 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. They shared little with the hungry. They turned a blind eye to those in need.

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 story describing the streets of these cities as paved with gold. They taught that the cities’ inhabitants flooded the cities’ gates 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.

I hear Rabbi Gunther Plaut teaching, “The treatment accorded newcomers and strangers was then and may always be considered a touchstone of a community’s moral condition.”

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

I search in vain for distractions.

The Torah appears to speak of today. It continues to speak to today.

That is its most important, and powerful, voice.

Perhaps I should give up the search…for distractions.

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