November 11, 2011

When one thinks of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayera, the first thought is incredible kindness of Abraham only days after his brit milah followed by Sarah bearing a child at 90 with a 100 year old husband all trumped by Abraham’s tenth and final test, the “almost” sacrifice of Isaac.  As children, we have all touched on the first thoughts, but I would like to delve into a portion that seems like a rhetorical question of an age old issue.  In the second half of chapter 18 we are run head on into, “Should good people suffer for the evil that bad people do?”

As if we are ease dropping on the “conversation” between God and Abraham, we enter with God telling Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed for their wickedness and Abraham responding with a lengthy prayer and dialog on the cities behalf.  “Cutting to the chase,” Abraham boldly asks, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”  You know the rest, Abraham asks “what if there were 50 righteous citizens?”  He then negotiates for 45, 40, 30, and so on until agreeing on 10 righteous people being the magical number.  Unable to find even 10 righteous citizens, God proceeds to destroy both cities.

Why did God cause this to happen?  One would think the few good would be spared.[i]  Perhaps Abraham’s successful pleas were that the smaller number of the righteous would be sufficient to save them all.  Whatever the case, the Torah tells us little with the most memorable detail being Lot’s wife who “looked back” and turned into “a pillar of salt.”[ii]

The Rabbis also ask the same question of what was so evil about the people of these cities that God decided to destroy everyone.  Varying commentators and Midrashim give different reasons that all relate to one another.  The gist of these comments are as follows:

  1. They refused to share their wealth and abundant riches with others.
  2. They made fun of those in need and deliberately made their lives more miserable.
  3. They refused to care for the sick, aid the poor, help the needy, or offer hospitality to the immigrant or stranger in their midst.
  4. Their leaders were so greedy and selfish that they made cruelty a public policy.
  5. They went so far as to punish their own citizens who reached out to feed the hungry or provide shelter to the homeless.
  6. Their judges practiced dishonesty and robbery, and their courts offered no fair treatment for victims of oppression or injustice.

For all of these reasons mentioned, the rabbis note thatSodomandGomorrahwere destroyed.  But what about our original question?  Even if there was one innocent, good person left inSodomorGomorrah, should that person have been destroyed with all the evil ones?  Must good people suffer because of the bad things that others do?  The answer for us in our society today is that unfortunately we often suffer because of the evil that others may do.  Perhaps you can see the connection with our parsha and the incident at Penn State.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we are free to choose between good and evil, between hurting others or helping them.  The gift of freedom means that God does not interfere and cannot prevent us from doing things that not only harms us but others as well.  God wants us to do the right thing, to be just, kind, loving, and generous, but God cannot force us to make the right choice.  We must make our own choices, and we must live with the consequences—even the consequences of the choices that other people make.  Our job in the world today is to do our best to be an example and to not put ourselves in situations where others are making poor choices.  God gave us free will, and therefore we must be conscious of the broad latitude we have been granted.

God did not plan the destruction.  The people brought their end upon themselves and others.  What we should learn from this is that if we are in a place or position that does not feel right, it is our responsibility to leave and go somewhere better, somewhere new, rather than staying with those who could potentially cause us harm in our lives.  This is not easy.

It sounds so much more expressive in French and it does seem appropriate here today.  Plus ca change, plue c’est la meme chose or “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  The last thing I want to do is falsely accuse anyone of anything, but it sure looks like the whole upper strata of the athletic department and administration at Penn State could not figure out what to do in a very delicate situation.  Apparently, one person did something (dastardly) wrong, but nobody could figure out the right thing to do.  Not exactly like our kinsmen inSodom and Gomorah, but even the most biased observer would have to admit, similar.  Let us hope that the facts will not implicate those that did little wrong and not bring down careers and lifetimes of good work, but I fear that just like in our parsha, there were not enough righteous people to stand up for those little boys.

Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because, as we have seen, their inhabitants were guilty of abusing human freedom.  They brought on their own destruction—and the death of many innocent people—they deliberately chose cruelty over charity, selfishness over caring, and greed over sharing.  Let us learn from our parsha this week and the incident at Penn State

to do better for ourselves and for the environment we are living in.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

[i] Gunther Plaut in his The Torah: A Modern Commentary somehow notes “There were no righteous men in the cities.”

[ii] This is not the first time I have read this portion and I was somewhat surprised by the footnote in our Etz Hayim Chumash where it sets out that she “lingered in flight and was overwhelmed by the rapidly spreading devastation.”  My lifelong understanding was that she simply “looked back” and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt.  At least that is why we have commentaries to allow us the opportunity to discuss issues like this.