Parshat Vayera- An Appropriate End

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(‘זעקת סדום ועמרה כי רבה, וחטאתם כי כבדה מאד” (בראשית י”ח:כ”

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, three מלאכים are sent to visit אברהם אבינו, each with a different job. One of them was sent to destroy סדום. Later on in that פרק, השם reveals to אברהם that סדום will be destroyed because “זעקת סדום ועמרה כי רבה וחטאתם כי כבדה” The outcry of Sodom and Amora is great and their sins are heavy. This is interesting, because the last time that a civilization was destroyed because of their sins was in the time of the Flood, after which G-d made a ברית never to destroy civilization again because He realizes “כי יצר לב האדם רע מנעוריו.” What, then, could cause Hashem decide to completely destroy Sodom?

When the מלאכים enter Sodom that evening, they are greeted by לוט who welcomes them to stay by his home, much as his uncle אברהם did earlier that day. There is a small difference between the way that אברהם and לוט invite the מלאכים: When אברהם greets his three guests, he says ” ורחצו רגליכם והשענו תחת העץ.” Later on, when לוט greets his guests, he reverses the order, saying “ולינו ורחצו רגליכם.” Rashi, picking up on this subtle change, explains that לוט offered them accommodations first because he was afraid that if their feet were clean, the אנשי סדום would realize that these two people were guests staying in סדום, and would try to harm them. We see from here that the Sodomite people were inhospitable.

A little bit later on, Ramban clarifies this מידה a little bit. He asks why the אנשי סדום were so against visitors. Why did it bother them so much to have אורחים staying in their city? He answers that סדום was a place where people could come to seek their fortune, much as לוט did, leading to them eventually living there. The Sodomites, in their selfishness, tried to keep these people away, thus sealing their fate.

As אנשי סדום surround לוט’s house, they demand something which hints towards the level of morality of the city. They ask לוט to release his guests so that they can “ונדע אותם,” and we shall know them, which most מפרשים interpret as a euphemism for raping them. What is even more worrying is לוט’s reaction. While he refuses to give up his guests to the Sodomites, he instead informs them “הנה לי שתי בנות… ועשו לן כטוב בעינך” Behold I have two daughters… you may do to them as you wish. Midrash Tanchuma found this especially perplexing, because a man would normally fight to the death for the honor of his wife or daughters. We can see from here that the Sodom culture is very immoral, and even לוט, the only צדיק in the city, was adversely affected by their immoral ways.

Because of these different traits, סדום is identified as a wicked culture, and G-d therefore destroys it with sulfur and fire. We can see from this story that tzadikim, when surrounded by this type of culture, cannot help but be affected by the traits of those around them. In the end of the day, G-d destroyed סדום because of its wicked culture- the same can happen in any other immoral and wicked culture. The only salvation for the righteous people in this environment is to leave before it’s too late- before they get caught up in the culture and are lost forever as well.

To a certain extent, the culture of Western Civilization, especially in the United States, has a lot in common with Sodom. In a Gallup Poll taken in nine Islamic countries, respondents were asked what they believe the negatives of Western Culture are. While most of the answers were very radical and not necessarily true, there was one answer which I believe is very relevant to this topic of a culture gone astray; Many of the respondents believed that Western Culture, “promotes a wayward lifestyle involving immoral relationships, weakening family structures, decline of social courtesy, and loss of traditional deference to elders.” While it seems highly ironic to be taking lessons on morality from a culture and religion where their World to Come involves fourty nine virgins, it’s interesting that their perspective of Western Culture is similar to G-d’s perspective of the Sodomite culture.

Furthermore, one of the main ideas of Western culture, as defined by Greek philosophers, is that the purpose of life is to be happy and do what bring us joy. While Judaism also believes in being happy, we believe that we can reach the ultimate levels of happiness and joy by connecting to G-d and serving Him. The Western world’s selfish ideals have a huge effect not only on its people, but also on the Jews who still live in the United States and Canada. The longer we are exposed to that atmosphere of selfishness and immorality, the more they become a part of us.

In תהלים פרק ס”ט, a פרק which coincidently was one of the מזמורים read as part of the monthly Tehilim cycle for Monday, דוד המלך writes of בני ישראל’s plight in the גלות and he prays for a speedy גאולה. This theme itself is very and relevant to this week’s פרשה. However, some of his wording also hints to another recent event: “הושיעיני אלקים כי באו מים עד נפש… באתי במעמקי מים ושבלת שטפתני””- Save me, Lord, for the waters have risen until my shoulders… I have come in deep waters and a rushing current sweeps me away. Later on, David concludes: “כי אלקים יושיע ציון ויבנה ערי יהודה וישובו” – For G-d will save Zion, build the cities of Judah, and they (Israel) will settle them and posses them.

As we can see, some of the wording that the משורר uses in this מזמור are very connected to the recent natural disaster that took place in the Northeast United States. Hurricane Sandy, described by many as Superstorm Sandy, was the first Category 1 Hurricane in the past few decades to combine with a Winter storm and turn over land, instead of veering toward the ocean as most hurricanes do. As a result, the Northeast United States were hit with extremely strong winds and rain. As of this writing, most of the New York/Tristate Area is without power and heat and Lower Manhattan, including the Freedom Towers, Battery Park, and all of the East River tunnels are currently under feet of water. While Western civilization would like to call this a “natural disaster,”  we G-d-fearing Jews know there is no such thing as a natural disaster. Everything happens for a reason.

I believe that there is a lesson to be learned from Hurricane Sandy hitting on the same week as we read of Sodom’s destruction. In our פרשה, as סדום is being destroyed, it is noted that the destruction of סדום was”מאת השם מן השמים”- From Hashem from Heaven. While Hurricane Sandy is definitely not a replication of the destruction of Sodom, and b”h the losses from Sandy were minimal, we must realize the same thing that Lot realized when the מלאכים visited him that fateful evening- that we (בני חוץ לארץ) are NOT where we belong. Minimally, we need to follow דוד המלך’s example and pray for our גאולה before we are drowned by the “water” of our harmful culture. By doing so we can iy”h be זוכה to be saved by השם by the ביאת המשיח very soon.

However, I believe that this is not enough. While it is all really fine and dandy to sit around and passively pray for our גואלה, I do not believe this is the message of the story of the destruction of Sodom. Lot was taken from Sodom to flee to somewhere where he would be surrounded by more righteous people so he could serve G-d better. As he leaves סדום, the מלאכים tell לוט to go up to the mountains. He protests, and instead runs to a city which he then names Zoar, where the rest of his story, including the incestuous birth of Moab and Amon, takes place. If he would’ve made this “עליה” to the mountains, that incident might never have taken place.

We all have a similar option to make an עליה. While many will argue that Jews should not be moving to Israel, since we are supposed to wait in חו”ל for the Third Bet Hamikdash to drop out of the sky (unlike the first two, which were built by us), I believe that the message of the story of Sodom and the מלאכים’s last message to Lot tells us otherwise. Israel is the only country in the world which has a Jewish majority (75.4% of Israeli residents, according to a poll taken in September 2012). The majority of the political leaders in Israel are Jewish. There is a National Bet Din and Rabbinate of Israel. Israel is the only country where Halachik rulings take on a legal status. Only in an environment like this can we serve G-d to our best, surrounded by other Jews who also dedicate their lives to serving G-d.

The Vilna Gaon, in pre-war Europe, pushed his Talmidim to move to then-Palestine, because he knew that it was a better place to be a Jew. This was before there was any Jewish leadership there, when the residents were under British rule following Turkish law. There are many people in the Jewish right-wing today who believe that it is not right to move to Israel because it is not perfect- because there are still non-religious Jews in the leadership, because the Chief Rabbinate is not up to the highest standards yet. I believe that these people need to take a step back and appreciate how far Israel has come over the past 64 1/2 years. Israel is the only country in the world which gives exemptions from national/army service to students studying in Yeshiva and Kollel. Israel is the only country that gives stipends to families who have new children, even if they don’t pay taxes or ideologically agree with the philosophy of the country. If the Vilna Gaon was in favor of moving to Israel before it was Jewish, we definitely have no right to complain about it now.

We should be zoche to have the strength to move to a place where we can properly serve G-d before it is too late, so that we can merit to actively bring the geula במהרה בימינו.