Parshat Vayera

(To prepare for this shiur,
see the questions for self study.)

It is very comfortable to think of Sdom as a city of thugs and perverts. After all, is that not the reason why God decided to destroy it?

However, if take a closer look at the Torah's presentation of these events, one could reach the conclusion that Sdom was a city with culture, and boasted a society not very different from our own.

In this week's shiur, in our discussion of Avraham Avinu's prayer to save Sdom, we examine this possibility.

In our series of shiurim on Sefer Breishit, we have been following the theme of "bechira", i.e. God's choice of Avraham Avinu to become the forefather of a special nation that will represent him. Thus far, we have discussed the reason why (i.e. for what purpose) God chose Avraham Avinu. But how will this nation ultimately achieve this goal? A possible answer to this question can be found in the story of God's consultation with Avraham before He destroys Sdom.

To better appreciate how the Torah presents these events, we must (once again) first consider its division into 'parshiot'.

An Extra Long 'Parshia'
Using a Tanach Koren, follow the segment from the beginning of Parshat Va'yera (18:1) until the conclusion of the story of Sdom (see 19:38). As you will see, this entire portion constitutes one long 'parshia' (uninterrupted by paragraph breaks in the Torah), despite the fact that it seems to contain two independent topics:
1) The news that Sarah will give birth to Yitzchak;
2) The story of Lot's rescue from Sdom.

Nonetheless, the lack of a 'parshia' break indicates that these two episodes are thematically connected.

The most obvious connection is the "malachim" [angels] who are involved in both stories, for the same "malachim" who tell Avraham about the birth of Yitzchak continue on to destroy Sdom. However, this answer raises precisely the same question: why is it necessary for the same angels who are to destroy Sdom to first stop and inform Avraham of Yitzchak's birth?

[If we adopt Rashi's position (see 18:2), that each angel was assigned only one mission, then we would phrase the question this way: why must all three travel together?]

The Torah itself may allude to an answer to this question. Pay careful attention to God's explanation of why He must first consult Avraham before destroying Sdom, and how it relates to Avraham's offspring (who will stem from Yitzchak):

"And God said: Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do, since Avraham is to become a great nation, and through him all other nations will be blessed? For I have singled him out in order that he will instruct his children and their family afterward to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right... in order that I shall bring upon Avraham all that I have spoken about him." (see 18:17-19)

First of all, note the obvious thematic and textual parallels to the Torah's explicit reason for God's original choice of Avraham Avinu as detailed at the beginning of Parshat Lech L'cha (see 12:1-3):
"v'e'escha l'goy gadol - [I will make you a great nation]
"v'nivrchu bcha kol mishpchot ha'adama / go'ay ha'aretz" - [through you all the nations will be blessed]
[see board #1]

After reviewing why He chose Avraham Avinu (in 18:18), God continues to explain how this will happen, for Avraham will teach his children (and those children their children, etc.) to do tzedaka u'mishpat (see 18:19).

Avraham is expected to initiate a family tradition to create a nation that will be characterized by a society of "tzedaka & mishpat" - thereby serving as God's model nation. [See also Devarim 4:5-8 for a very similar explanation.]

At this point in the narrative, we are not yet aware of the precise sin of Sdom. However, whatever that sin may be, this 'prelude' certainly suggests that it must relate to a lack of "tzedek u'mishpat" in Sdom.

As we continue, we will see how.

Preventing Future 'Sdom's
This 'prelude' explains how both stories in this one "parshia" are connected. When God's master plan for the nation of Avraham will materialize, societies such as Sdom could be saved, for there will be a 'model nation' from whom they can learn from. However, at this point in time, Sdom is a 'lost cause' for it lacks a minimal number of "tzadikim" who could possibly influence the rest of the city.

This concept is reflected in Avraham's petition that God spare the doomed city. Avraham does not ask that God simply save the "tzadikim" in Sdom; he begs that the entire city be saved for the sake of those "tzadikim"! [See 18:26.] Why? Because hopefully those "tzadikim" will lead all the people in Sdom towards proper "teshuva," just as the nation of Avraham is destined to lead all mankind in the direction of God.

[Note as well how Avraham prays that God should save the entire city should there be only 50 or 45, or 40, or 30, or even 10 "tzadikim" / see 18:23-32). But if less than ten, there is little chance such a small number can exert an influence.]

In the future, it is God's hope that Avraham's nation, by setting the proper example, will prevent the emergence of similarly corrupt populations. As Yitzchak is the son through whom this tradition will be transmitted, it is meaningful that the same angels assigned to destroy Sdom must first 'plant the seeds' for the prevention of future Sdom's.

Avraham makes this gallant effort to save Sdom despite its being an exercise in futility. His petition reflects the very purpose for which he was selected, the tradition he must pass on to his son Yitzchak and all future generations.

Avraham vs. Sdom
In Sefer Breishit, Sdom represents the antithesis of everything for which Avraham stands. As we explained last week, Lot's decision to leave Avraham and move to Sdom (13:1-18) reflects his preference not to be dependent on God and to dissociate himself from his uncle. It is in that context where we are told that: "The men of Sdom were very wicked to God" (13:13).

Furthermore, after rescuing Lot from the 'four kings' (see chapter 14), Avraham refuses to keep any property belonging to Sdom recovered in that victory. Although he rightfully deserves his 'fair share' of the spoils from the battle which he himself fought and won, Avraham Avinu, expressing his opposition to anything associated with Sdom, prefers to completely divorce himself from any resources originating from that city:

"Avram said to the King of Sdom: I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a shoe strap of what is yours, so you can not say: It is I who made Avram rich." (14:22-23)

These two events - Lot's settlement in Sdom and Avraham's refusal to take a single item therefrom - as well as God's statement concerning Avraham's mission to teach "tzedaka u- mishpat" before He destroys Sdom (in Parshat Va'yera/ 18:19), all indicate that Sdom is a society bereft of "tzedaka u-mishpat."

This backdrop allows us to read the ensuing story in chapter 19, in search for a lack of "tzedek u'mishpat" in Sdom.

No Guests Allowed!
Although "mishpat" may be found in Sdom, "tzedek" is most definitely absent. The best example is the account of the city's reaction to Lot's harboring of his two guests. Review the story from 19:1, and we'll pick up the narrative from 19:4.

"...they [his two guests] had not lain down yet when the townspeople, the men of Sdom, gathered outside his house - from young to old - all the people until the edge [of the city]. And they protested [outside his house] and shouted: 'Where are those men who came to visit you this evening? Take them out of your house so we can know them [v'nay'da'eym]." (see 19:4-5)

Most of us are familiar with Rashi's interpretation, that the gathering consisted of merely a small group of the lowest social and ethical stratum of Sdom, who wanted to 'know them' in the Biblical sense (based on 19:8 and 13:13; see also 4:1 and further iyun section) [See board #2]. Simple "pshat," however [as Rasag & Ramban claim], is that the entire city joined in the protest demonstration.

Why were they protesting? As Ramban explains so beautifully (see his pirush on 19:5), the Sdomites protested against "hachnasat orchim" - taking in strange visitors!

There's a strict law in Sdom: no guests allowed! The Ramban explains that the Sdomites don't want to ruin their exclusive [suburban] neighborhood. Should Lot accommodate guests this evening, tomorrow night more guests will come. [Like cats,] by the end of the month, the city streets will be flooded with transients and beggars. Should the 'word get out' that there is 'free lodging' in Sdom, their 'perfect' city would be ruined. Furthermore, if everyone agrees not to take care of the needy, the needy will ultimately learn to take care of themselves. Thus, in the 'best interest' of the needy, the government of Sdom enacted such a policy (see board #3).

Hence, should any citizen ["chas v'shalom"] bring home a guest, the city's 'steering committee' immediately calls for a public protest. [See also Sanhedrin 109a.]

Sdom may have "mishpat," a standardized system of laws, but it is warped. Not to mention the fact that "tzedaka" had no place whatsoever in this bastion of amorality.

[Chazal remark in Pirkei Avot that the social norm of "sheli sheli, shelkha shelkha" - what is mine is mine, what is yours is yours - is a 'custom of Sdom.' The attribution of this social philosophy to Sdom reflects this same understanding (see Pirkei Avot 5:10 - "arba midot b'adam...").]

Tzedek U'Mishpat vs. Sdom
This interpretation explains why throughout Nviim Acharonim Sdom is associated with the absence of "tzedek u'mishpat." In fact, the three most famous of the Nviim Acharonim - Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, and Yechezkel - all of whom foresee and forewarn the destruction, compare the corrupt society in Israel to that of Sdom, and see therein the reason for their own forthcoming destruction.

Let's start with an example from Yechezkel, as he states explicitly that this was the sin of Sdom (i.e. the very same point discussed above concerning "hachnasat orchim"):

"...Your younger sister was Sdom...Did you not walk in her ways and practice her abominations? Why, you are more corrupt than they in all your ways... This was the sin of your sister Sdom - she had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity, yet she did not support the poor and the needy. In her haughtiness, they sinned before Me, so I removed them, as you saw..." (see Yechezkel 16:46-50)

In Yeshayahu, the connection between the lack of "tzedek u'mishpat" and Sdom is even more explicit. As we all recall from the Haftara of Shabbat Chazon, Yeshayahu compares Am Yisrael's behavior to that of Sdom & Amora:

"Listen to the word of God - you [who are like] officers of Sdom, pay attention to the teachings of our God - you [who are like] the people of Amora. Why should I accept your many offerings... Instead, learn to do good, devote yourself to justice, aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow...How has the faithful city, once filled with mishpat tzedek, now become a city of murderers..." (Isaiah 1:10-21, see also 1:3-9!)
Recall also how Yeshayahu concludes this n'vuah (1:27):
"Tzion b'mishpat tipadeh, v'shaveha b'tzedaka - Zion will be redeemed by our doing "mishpat"; her repentance - through our performance of "tzedaka."

In chapter five - Yeshayahu's famous "mashal ha'kerem" [the parable of the vineyard] - the prophet reiterates God's initial hope and plan that Am Yisrael would perform "tzedaka u'mishpat," and the punishment they deserve for doing exactly the opposite:

"va-yikav le-mishpat - ve-hiney mispach"
[God had hoped to find justice, and found injustice],
"l'tzedaka - v'hiney tza'aka."
[to find "tzedaka," and instead found iniquity]
(Isaiah 5:7, see entire chapter, see also 11:1-6.)

Perhaps the strongest expression of this theme is found in Yirmiyahu. In his powerful charge to the House of David [whose lineage stems not only from Yehuda but also (& not by chance) from Ruth the Moabite, a descendant of Lot!], Yirmiyahu articulates God's precise expectation of the Jewish king:

"Hear the word of God, King of Judah, you who sit on the throne of David... Do mishpat u'tzedaka... do not wrong a stranger, an orphan, and the widow.." (Yirmiyahu 22:1-5)

[See also 21:11-12.]

Later, when Yirmiyahu contrasts the corrupt king Yehoyakim with his righteous father Yoshiyahu, he admonishes:

"... your father (Yoshiyahu)... performed tzedaka u'mishpat, and that made him content. He upheld the rights of the poor and needy - is this not what it means to know Me [l'daat oti], God has said! But you (Yehoyakim) - on your mind is only your ill-gotten gains..." (see 22:13-17)

Note that Yirmiyahu considers doing "tzedaka & mishpat" as the means by which we come to 'know God' ["l'daat et Hashem" - (compare with Breishit 18:19)]!

Finally, when Yirmiyahu speaks of the ideal king who will bring the redemption, he emphasizes the very same theme:

"A time is coming - Hashem declares - when I will raise up a true branch of David's line. He shall reign as king and prosper, and he will perform mishpat and tzedaka in the land. In his days, Yehuda shall be delivered and Israel shall dwell secure..." (23:5-6) [See also Zecharya 7:9, 8:8,16-17, II Shmuel 8:15!]

This reason for the choice of the Kingdom of David corresponds the underlying purpose behind God's choosing of Avraham Avinu. As we have explained numerous times, God's designation of Avraham came not in reward for his exemplary behavior, but rather for a specific purpose: to establish a model nation - characterized by "tzedek u-mishpat" - that will bring all mankind closer to God. For this very same reason, God chooses a royal family to rule this nation - the House of David. They too are chosen in order to teach the nation the ways of tzedaka u'mishpat.

But even without proper leadership, this charge remains our eternal goal, the responsibility of every individual. To prove this and to summarize this theme, we need only quote one last pasuk from Yirmiyahu (not by chance, the concluding pasuk of the Haftara for Tisha B'av):

"Thus says the Lord:
Let not the chacham [wise man] glory in his wisdom;
Let not the gibor [strong man] glory in his strength;
Let not the ashir [rich man] glory in his riches.
But only in this should one glory:
Let him be wise to know me [haskel v'yadoah oti] - For I the Lord act in the land with chesed [kindness], mishpat, and tzedaka - for it is this that I desire, says the Lord." (see Yirmiyahu 9:22-23)
[See also the Rambam's concluding remarks to the last chapter of Moreh N'vuchim!]

Once again we find that knowing God means emulating His ways, acting in accordance with the values of tzedek u'mishpat. Should the entire nation act in this manner, our goal will be accomplished.

Thus, what at first appears to be simply a parenthetical statement by God (concerning Avraham) before destroying Sdom (in Breishit 18:19) unfolds as a primary theme throughout Tanach!

La'daat - The Key Word
It is not by chance that Yirmiyahu (in the above examples) uses the Hebrew word "la'daat" in the context of following a lifestyle of "tzedek u'mishpat". As we have already seen, the shoresh "daled.ayin.heh" has been a key word throughout the narrative concerning Sdom. First and foremost in a positive context:

"ki'ydaativ lmaan asher... la'assot tzdaka u'mishpat..." (18:19),
but also in a negative context:
"v'im lo ay'daah" (see 18:21!).

However, this same word also surfaces in a rather ambiguous manner later on in the story. As noted briefly earlier, Rashi and Ramban dispute the meaning of "v'neyda otam" (see 19:5 - when the protesters demand that Lot surrender his guests). From this pasuk alone, it is not at all clear what this phrase implies.

Rashi explains that the men of Sdom wanted to 'know them' in the Biblical sense (to 'sleep' with them "mishkav zachar" - see 4:1 & Chizkuni on 19:5). Ramban contends that they wanted to 'know' their identity in order to 'kick them out of town,' in accordance with their city ordinance prohibiting visitors (see board #3).

Clearly, Ramban takes into consideration the psukim from Yechezkel (which he cites explicitly, and most probably also took into account Yeshayahu chapter 1) that clearly identify Sdom's [primary] sin as their unwillingness to help the poor and needy. In light of the direct contrast drawn between Avraham's devotion to tzedek u'mishpat and the character of Sdom (as in 18:17-19), we can readily understand why Ramban sought to interpret "v'naydah otam" as relation to 'kicking out' unwanted guests (see board #4).

Rashi (and many other commentators) argue that "v'nayda otam" implies "mishkav zachar" (sodomy - and hence its name!). This opinion is based primarily on Lot's reaction to the protestors' request by offering his two daughters instead of his guests, and his comment, "asher lo ya'du ish" (see 19:8 / note again the use of the same "shoresh") (see board #5).

Had it not been for the psukim in Yechezkel 16:48-50, and the prelude in Breishit 18:19, then Rashi's explanation seems to be the most logical. However, when we examine the story a little more carefully, the story itself can support Ramban's approach as well.

The most obvious problem with Rashi's explanation (that the protestors are interested in sodomy) stems from their sheer number. From 19:4 it appears that the group that gathers outside Lot's house includes the entire city, most likely hundreds of individuals, young and old! If they are simply interested in sodomy, pardon the expression, but how could two guests 'suffice'? (See board #6)

[Rashi, in light of this problem, offers a somewhat novel explanation for 19:4, that only the "thugs of Sdom" ("anshei Sdom" implying a specific group and not the entire city) banged on Lot's door. The Torah mentions the rest of the population - "from young to old" - only in regard to the fact that they did not protest the gang's depraved behavior. Rasag (on 19:4) disagrees, \ proving from 19:11 that both young and old had gathered outside Lot's house.]

Ramban combines both explanations, criticizing Lot's own character for foolishly offering his two daughters in exchange for the protection of his guests. However, this explanation is also quite difficult, for how (and why) should this offer appease this mass crowd who claim (according to Ramban) to be interested only in expelling unwanted guests! (See board #7)

One could suggest an explanation for Lot's remarks that solves all of the above questions, leaving Lot's character untainted, while keeping the focus entirely on "tzedek u'mishpat".

Giving Musar
Lot's statement must be understood in light of the crowd's reaction. Note how the crowd responds to Lot's 'offer':

"And they said to him: Go away [gesh hal'ah - move a far distance, you have just (recently) come to dwell (in our city) and now you judge us! Now we will deal with you worse than with them..." (see 19:9)

What did Lot say that prompted such a severe reaction? If he simply offered his daughters, why couldn't they just say: No, we prefer the men. Instead, they threaten to be more evil with Lot than with his guests. Does this mean that they want to 'sleep' with Lot as well?

One could suggest that when Lot pleads: "My brothers, don't do such evil [to my guests], here our my two daughters..." (see 19:6), he is not seriously offering his daughters at all. Rather, he makes mention of them as part of a vehement condemnation of the people. In a sarcastic manner, Lot is telling the crowd that he'd rather give over his daughters than his guests! He has no intention whatsoever of giving them over to a mass mob. [As we mentioned above, how could two women 'appease' such a large crowd!] He is simply rebuking them, emphasizing how important it his that they allow him to keep guests. It's as if he said, "I'd sooner give you my daughters than my two guests".

[Furthermore, Lot does not bring his daughters with him when he makes his so-called 'offer.' In fact, he actually closes the door behind him (see 19:6) after he leaves to negotiate with the rioters. Had Lot really wanted to 'appease' them with his daughters, he should have taken them outside with him!]

This explains why the crowd becomes so angered by Lot's remarks. They are taken aback by his harsh rebuke of their 'no guest' policy.

Based on this interpretation [that Lot is 'giving them musar' and not 'making a deal'], we can better understand the mob's response to Lot's offer (19:6-8). They neither accept nor reject Lot's proposal. Instead they express their anger with Lot's rebuke:

"One has just come to live by us - va'yishpot sha'fot - and now he is judging us; now we will deal more harshly with you than [we planned to deal] with them!" (see 19:8)

[In other words, they seem to be saying: 'Hey, you're just a newcomer here in our town, and you already think you can tell us what to do!? No way - now we're gonna kick you out of town now, together with your guests!']

[This would also explain what they mean by - "Now we will do more evil to you than to them" (see 19:9). In other words, before we only wanted to expel you guests from town, now we are going to expel you and your family as well!]

What do people mean by "you are judging us"? Apparently, there is something in Lot's statement the suggests judgement; but is it only his request that they 'not be so mean' (see 19:7)?

One could suggest that they consider Lot's sarcastic offer of his daughters instead of his guests as a moral judgment of their 'no-guest' policy; a reprehension of their unethical social system. If so, then this is exactly to what "va'yishpot shafot" refers to. They are angered for Lot has 'judged' their character. No one likes being told what to do, especially by 'newcomers'; hence their angry and threatening reaction to Lot's remarks.

This interpretation of "shafot" in relation to rebuke is found many other times in Tanach. See for example I Shmuel 7:6, where Shmuel (at Mitzpah) rebukes the entire nation for their behavior. We find a similar use of the verb "lishpot" in I Shmuel 12:7, when Shmuel rebukes the nation for not appreciating God's salvation when asking for King to lead them instead! [See also Yirmiyahu 1:16, and its context.]

If this interpretation is correct, then it may be that Sdom's sin involved only social justice (as Yechezkel 16:48-49 implies), and had nothing to do with 'sodomy' at all! And for this reason alone, God found it necessary to destroy that city.

Difficult as it may be to understand, this conclusion should be seriously considered as we set our own values and determine our lifestyle and community priorities.

Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Ronni Libson.

For Further Iyun
1. See Rambam in Sefer Zraim, Hilchot Matnot Aniyiim, chapter 10, the first halacha. Note how he explains that the mitzvah of "tzedaka" requires the highest priority, and he supports his statement from Breishit 18:18-19, as we discussed in our shiur.

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