In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it is certainly appropriate to gives thanks for our survival, to say shehecheyanu, as this event reminds us of the awesome power of nature, of creation. And it reminds us of how fragile everything we've built really is, how quickly it would all disappear if we were not able to continually feed and maintain it. It reminds us of how small we really are, after all.
We call such events acts of God, and even when the phrase is used simply as a metaphor, it serves as a reminder that we are not in control, that there are forces greater than ourselves, that there is so much we don't know and don't understand about the universe, that we are very, very small indeed in the face of it all.
And yet we have these amazing minds, capable of learning, and passing on what we know, of accumulating our knowledge from one generation to another. We possess minds capable of relating to one another, of feeling empathy and extending a helping hand, of asking for help and asking if anyone needs help, of entering into dialogue to understand each other better, and understand our world better than before. And most of all, we possess minds capable of asking questions, and letting those questions guide us, leading us in search of answers, and while the answers we get may change as our understanding expands, the good questions that we ask continue to serve us over the centuries.
This weeks Torah portion includes the story of another natural disaster, or act of God, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. What it says is
And God caused to rain down upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from heaven. And He turned over these cities and the entire plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the vegetation of the ground. And Lot's wife looked from behind her, and she became a pillar of salt. And Abraham arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before God. And he looked over the face of Sodom and Gomorrah and over the entire face of the land of the plain, and he saw, and behold, the smoke of the earth had risen like the smoke of a furnace. (Genesis 19: 24-28)
From a modern, scientific point of view, we can understand these events as being caused by possibly an earthquake, probably a volcanic eruption, much like the well-documented destruction of the Roman city of Pompeii in the year 79 of the common era, less than a decade after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem (not that I'm implying any connection, of course, but then again, you never know...). The story of Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt uses a common folk motif where the individual is instructed not to look back, does so, and forfeits the rescue being granted by a greater power. And if you've ever traveled to the Dead Sea in Israel, you can see there natural pillars consisting of the sea salts left behind due to evaporation, so her specific fate plays upon that natural phenomenon. And we can understand the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as an attempt to explain a natural disaster in supernatural terms, but more importantly, it is an occasion for a moral lesson. On a simple level, it's the idea that God punishes the wicked, but there's something more sophisticated at work here.
The Torah portion begins with God appearing to Abraham—the name of the parsha is Vayeira, which means And He appeared, and it continues the story of Abraham from the previous parsha. But of course God does not actually appear in visual form. What Abraham sees is three men, and he recognizes that they are more than what they seem, and welcomes them and shows them great hospitality. Hospitality is one of the great virtues in the ancient world, one of the highest values, and to be a host is to be under great obligation to treat your guests well.
So God, in the form of the three men, tell Abraham and Sarah that at this time next year Sarah will give birth to a son, and Sarah laughs at the ridiculous notion of giving birth in her old age. How very human that is! But God chides Sarah for questioning Him, and Sarah being afraid, denies laughing, which is also an altogether human, understandable response. And God basically says, don't kid a kidder, I know you were laughing. But that's all He does, He doesn't punish Sarah in any way, which suggests that he accepts her skepticism, and knows that she will be convinced when the miracle of birth actually occurs.
Then God decides to tell Abraham about his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and this results in what Rabbi Schwartz refers to as one of the great debates of Judaism (see Judaism's Great Debates). Here's how it reads:
And Abraham approached and said, "Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the midst of the city; will You even destroy and not forgive the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst? Far be it from You to do a thing such as this, to put to death the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should be like the wicked. Far be it from You! Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?" And the Lord said, "If I find in Sodom fifty righteous men within the city, I will forgive the entire place for their sake." And Abraham answered and said, "Behold now I have commenced to speak to the Lord, although I am dust and ashes. Perhaps the fifty righteous men will be missing five. Will You destroy the entire city because of five?" And He said, "I will not destroy if I find there forty-five." And he continued further to speak to Him, and he said, "Perhaps forty will be found there." And He said, "I will not do it for the sake of the forty. And he said, "Please, let the Lord's wrath not be kindled, and I will speak. Perhaps thirty will be found there." And He said, "I will not do it if I find thirty there." And he said, "Behold now I have desired to speak to the Lord, perhaps twenty will be found there." And He said, "I will not destroy for the sake of the twenty." And he said, "Please, let the Lord's wrath not be kindled, and I will speak yet this time, perhaps ten will be found there." And He said, "I will not destroy for the sake of the ten." And the Lord departed when He finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place. (18: 23-33)
A debate yes, clearly, but what else is going on here? Haggling! As an archaic practice, haggling may see strange to us, possibly quaint, maybe irritating, but it is important to understand that as far as transactions go, haggling was the norm until the last couple of centuries. Before Gutenberg's printing press in the 16th century, fixed prices were inconceivable. And it took a few centuries after that invention for the idea to evolve of listing prices in print, publishing them, making them public in other words, so they become fixed and non-negotiable. We have become so distanced from this basic human mode of engagement that almost all of us feel extreme discomfort when prices are not clearly fixed, for example when buying a car, we're never quite sure if we got a good deal or not. And its even worse when dealing with real estate. But in traditional cultures, haggling is form of social exchange, not just monetary exchange. It's a sign of respect, dealing with the other person as a human being and not a thing, an I-You not an I-It, to use Martin Buber's terms. When we go to a society where haggling is the norm and we just want to pay the price and not haggle, it can be seen as an insult, a form of dismissal, rejection, dehumanization. Or at best, it marks us for a fool. So what this passage indicates is that we can haggle with God, that God treats us not as property or servants, but as beings worthy of respect and engagement.
Understanding haggling also helps us to understand the next series of events in the Torah portion, specifcially Lot's actions before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, when God sends two angels to Sodom, and Lot provides them with hospitality much like Abraham did with the three men:
And the two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom, and Lot saw and arose toward them, and he prostrated himself on his face to the ground. And he said, "Behold now my lords, please turn to your servant's house and stay overnight and wash your feet, and you shall arise early and go on your way." And they said, "No, but we will stay overnight in the street." And he urged them strongly, and they turned in to him, and came into his house, and he made them a feast, and he baked unleavened cakes, and they ate. When they had not yet retired, and the people of the city, the people of Sodom, surrounded the house, both young and old, the entire populace from every end[of the city]. And they called to Lot and said to him, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, and let us be intimate with them." And Lot came out to them to the entrance, and he shut the door behind him. And he said, "My brethren, please do not do evil. Behold now I have two daughters who were not intimate with a man. I will bring them out to you, and do to them as you see fit; only to these men do nothing, because they have come under the shadow of my roof." (19:1-8)
From a modern point of view, this is horrifying. As much as it shows the great importance attached to the value of hospitality in the ancient world, it also seems to reflect the low status of women, treated like property rather than as human beings. But could Lot really have been this callous about his own daughters, as a father, and as a righteous person? I think this part of the story is better understood as Lot attempting to haggle with the Sodomites. He started with two daughters, then he could have asked them to accept only one, then perhaps asked them to substitute himself instead of them, then maybe substituted something else of value, say his livestock. For people who are not literate, dramatic gestures and extreme statements are understood an invitation to dialogue and negotiation. That the Sodomites refuse his invitation to negotiate is a violation of the social contract that serves as the foundation for haggling, and further indication of their evil. This part of the story ends with the Sodomites punished by the angels, who strike them blind, a prelude to their annihilation the next day.
So, Sodom and Gomorrah could have been saved if there had been only ten righteous individuals, and ten of course is the required number for a minyan. For the sake of ten righteous individuals, a community is not destroyed, so what if there are less than ten? Then, you should leave. That's what Lot did with his wife and daughters. He tried to bring along their fiances as well, but they laughed at Lot and stayed behind, and perished. But the point here is that it is not enough to be a righteous individual, not enough to be one, you have to be part of at least ten. The emphasis is not on the individual, but the community. You can't be righteous alone.
I think it's important to stress what is absent. Sodom and Gomorrah do not have ten righteous individuals, making them the archetype of evil. But it is hard to imagine any other city or town or community with less than ten good people present. So what the story also tells us is that even if we are ourselves sinners and not blameless, we must respect and treasure the righteous among us, because it is for their sake that life goes on. And we never can be quite sure when their number might dip below ten, so we're all well served to emulate them, and get others to do so as well. But because it seems so unlikely to find a city where there are less than ten good persons, it all but amounts to a guarantee that God won't punish and destroy our community. Which means, if anything happens like Hurricane Sandy, it's not God punishing us, so there must be some other reason. And that opens the door to alternate explanations, such as supplied by science.
It's the same for the story of Noah. As much as it's about God deciding to punish the entire world for the wickedness of people, in the end it's a guarantee that that is exactly what he will not do ever again, a promise sealed by the rainbow.
This also helps to understand the other major story in this week's Torah portion, the binding of Isaac, which we also read on Rosh Hashanah. On the surface, the story is about Abraham's obedience to God, his willingness to sacrifice his own son, and the understanding that when it comes to acts of God, it's not a democracy, not like this coming Tuesday when we are obligated as citizens to take part in the democratic process. When it comes to God's laws and decress, we don't get a vote.
And while we might understand that this is meant to indicate Abraham's deep trust and devotion for God, still it strikes a dissonant chord with our modern sensibilities. So we struggle with this story, which has such a central position in our tradition that we retell it during our High Holy Days. But what I want to suggest is that we think about what is missing from the story.
One thing that is missing is the context. In the world that Abraham inhabited, human sacrifice, and the sacrifice of children was not unheard of, and in fact was a part of common ritual practice of many cults in that region, and throughout the world and into the modern era. Some may have practiced this ritual reluctantly, some with great sadness, some may have defied the tradition and been punished, executed, or forced to run away. But others practiced it joyfully, believing that those being sacrificed would be rewarded in the next world, to join with the divine in heavenly paradise. We know all too well that this belief persists to this very day, resulting in suicidal acts of violence.
In that context, God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son to Him, and Abraham being willing to go ahead with it, makes perfect sense, and seems perfectly legitimate. It's simply the accepted norm for cultures of that region in those ancient times, and that's why Abraham doesn't even bother to argue the point, unlike the case of Sodom and Gomorrah which was an unusual, extraordinary case. And if it seems so very difficult to put ourselves in their place, consider the following hypothetical scenario once posed by a philosophy professor: An alien god comes down to earth and makes the following offer to the people of the United States of America. He says, I will give you a gift that will vastly increase your freedom and mobility, and in return, all that I ask is that you sacrifice something on the order of 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 lives to me every year. Would any of you take the deal? Of course not. But that is exactly the bargain we made when we adopted the automobile as a technology. Cars are the third leading cause of death in the US, and first among our young people. And yet we celebrate rather than weep when our children get their driver's licenses. Also, consider how going to war was viewed a century ago, when people held parades as boys marched off to battle, and everyone spoke of the glory of war. Today we may view military service as honorable, or some may differ on that point, but no one sees it as desirable. And what is war, after all, but the ritual sacrifice of young men?
So the great surprise, the shock and awe if you like, in the story of the binding of Isaac is not Abraham's unquestioning obedience, but God sending an angel to stop him, saying:
Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are a God fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me. (22: 12).
What counts is what doesn't happen, that God establishes once and for all that he does not want human sacrifice. So the sacrifice of the ram takes the place of Isaac, and the idea of substitution opens the door to further substitutions, so that after the destruction of the Temple, prayer is used to substitute for the ritual sacrifice of animals, and this ability to substitute words for ritual acts reflects a higher form of consciousness.
Last week, I mentioned that we cannot demonstrate a negative in a narrative, except by showing it in positive terms, and then having it punished or otherwise denied. This was the case in the episode in which Abraham has to say that Sarah is his sister and Pharaoh is punished for trying to take her away (see Go Forth), and the motif is repeated in this Torah portion with Sarah and another king, Abimelech. And in the same way, to dramatize that God forbids human sacrifice, we must tell the story of how Abraham was ready to engage in this ritual practice, and God stopped him. It has the same meaning as a commandment that would say, Thou shalt not engage in human sacrifice.
What our tradition teaches us is how we can struggle to gain higher levels of understanding, of justice, compassion, and humility, how our ancestors struggled to raise their consciousness, and how we can emulate them by carrying on that struggle today, to understand, to help and heal our world, repair and continue the process of creation, through our imperfect efforts at democratic participation, social justice, through education, and as seekers asking questions about the sacred dimension of the universe.