Vayera- Natural Normalcy

Parshat Vayera, a very eventful reading, to say least, is also up there as one of the most unnatural. Throughout the course of the sedra, no less than five inexplicable events occur, including; Sarah and Avraham having a baby at their unnaturally old ages, the unnatural creation of מואב and עמון (the forebears of the משיח), the unnatural cruelness requested of Avraham at עקדת יצחק, and the unnatural request of אבימלך to create a treaty with our forefather. However, chief amongst these is the completely extraordinary destruction of the twin cities, Sodom and Amorrah. The passuk reads:

וה’, הִמְטִיר עַל-סְדֹם וְעַל-עֲמֹרָה-גָּפְרִית וָאֵשׁ מֵאֵת ה’, מִן-הַשָּׁמָיִם. וַיַּהֲפֹךְ אֶת-הֶעָרִים הָאֵ-ל, וְאֵת כָּל-הַכִּכָּר, וְאֵת כָּל-יֹשְׁבֵי הֶעָרִים, וְצֶמַח הָאֲדָמָה.

And G-d rained upon Sodom and Amorrah brimstone and fire from G-d from Heaven. And G-d overthrew those cities and all of the plain and the inhabitants of the cities, and everything which grew upon the ground. (בראשית יט:כה)

The repetitions of G-d’s name, bolded above, show us that even on the lightest פשט level, these events were far from natural. Going even deeper into דרש, Sforno, quoting Radak, teaches that “ויהפך” is not just your average city overturning, but rather an overturning of all of טבע in the area. Quoting תהילים, he explains that G-d turned water to blood, pre-dawn dew to salt, rained ashes from the sky, until finally, His angel destroyed the city, completing the “overturning,” both on a physical level, and also on a level of nature, and סדום and עמורה were gone for good.

In this commentary, Sforno goes out of his way to use the word טבע, lightly translated as ‘nature,’ a word which doesn’t appear in the Radak that he quotes, leaving us, the readers, to wonder- what exactly is טבע that becomes a point of contention between the two commentaries?

Rabbi Akiva Tatz, a Jewish philosopher at heart, answers. If we look at the word טבע, it seems to come from two distinct but similar looking words: מטבע (coin), and להטביע (to drown). While these words seem quite unrelated, they do have one common theme which is very much connected to nature- both coining and drowning take an object and do something to it that is potentially permanent. However, while a מטבע is quite permanent, a drowning victim can be saved and his fate is changed permanently from this. Nature can be the very same way- some see it as a מטבע, something undeviating that can never be changed. Many of these people become accustomed to their nature (both the good and bad of it), and those around them, to the point that they become engulfed by it. G-d can save them from this by changing מטבע to להטביע and saving them from their טבע before they drown in it. Thus, nature can be both permanent and changeable.

Sodom and the surrounding cities were just like this. Their sins and lewd behavior caused their טבע to become very bad, and they began to drown in it. However, they were beyond saving, so G-d let them drown in their own טבע and once they were gone, reset the clock in the ככר in the hope that the new inhabitants will set a different standard for themselves.

This is generally the attitude towards the story of the destruction of סדום and עמורה. We tut-tut at their bad behavior and praise G-d for changing טבע (or using it) to destroy them. However, I would like to present a slightly different perspective on טבע,  featured in אם הבנים שמחה quoted from the מהר”ל מפראג, that shows a completely different viewpoint on טבע, and an interesting repercussion for us, the latest דור באי הארץ.

Rav Teichtel writes that טבע, instead of meaning nature, is better translated as ‘homeostasis,’ or the natural and ideal way that every creation should be. When things go wrong in the world, when they are not what they should be, G-d often intervenes to restore טבע to the universe. But, more than this, part of the nature of the world is that it will inevitably restore itself to טבע given enough time, as a spring, pulled back to its full length, will inevitably return to its original position a few seconds after being released. In the world, wrongs will inexorably be righted, and טבע will be restored.

With this idea in mind, we can see that Sodom and Amorrah’s destruction did not involve G-d “removing טבע to do His will”- on the contrary, G-d’s intervention in סדום restored טבע to the world. ארץ ישראל, from its humble beginnings, has always had a high standard for behavior and low tolerance for misbehavior. סדום and עמורה’s immoral and inappropriate actions, much below the norm of the Holy Land, moved their cities, and the rest of the world further and further away from טבע. G-d, in His ultimate mercy, destroyed the ערי הכיכר to remove this evil and reinstate טבע in the world. Even though this intervention was far from natural, it was definitely not נגד הטבע.

Rav Teichtel, in quoting the מהר”ל, is not quite finished yet:

This idea of טבע also extends itself to ארצינו הקדושה. The Midrash teaches that at the beginning of time, every nation was given a homeland and a ministering angel to represent them and their land in the heavenly court. But, the Jewish People were not just given this- they were granted “חלק ה'”- G-d’s chosen land, and are represented by G-d Himself in the heavenly courts. The world was created for this (see רש”י on בראשית א:א), and while there were other inhabitants of ארץ ישראל during the time of the Patriarchs, with מתן תורה and בנ”י entering the land with Yehoshua, טבע changed to reflect our rightful reconquering of our heritage, and the ‘homeostasis’ of ארץ ישראל is where the Jewish People, alone, are inhabiting the land. For the past 2000+ years, things have gone נגד הטבע and the Jewish People have become a temporarily homeless people, bouncing between the lands of our enemies. While no end seems to be in sight, we need not worry, for as we’ve seen before, טבע will inevitably reassert itself, and with G-d’s help, we will see the return of natural order very soon.

These words, written by Rav Teichtel in the early 20th century, ring very true, yet are slightly out of date. While it’s true that most of our nation is located outside of its inheritance, its natural home, things are starting to change. 1948 saw the reestablishment of Jewish control of our promised land in the הקמת המדינה, and since then, we’ve seen countless miracles to ensure that we stay and continue to move here. However, while most of the world either ignores these acts of G-d, or declares them unnatural miracles, I would like to say that based on the מהר”ל, these miracles are quite בדרך הטבע. Like the destruction of סדום, things that do not appear to be natural are occurring in an effort to reestablish טבע, the Jewish people living in our own land, and while many firmly believe that many parts of מדינת ישראל are incorrect and it is not G-d’s will for us to be moving back, a look into the events of the past 66 years shows that there has been divine intervention at almost every step. Why is this? Because, after two long millennia, the metal spring that was stretched so far back is finally returning to equilibrium. דרך הטבע is reasserting itself, and we are so close to finally reaching it. We are only missing one thing- enough Jews in Israel for the משיח to come and for us to rebuild the Bet Hamikdash, thereby returning to טבע, for good this time. So, as we read this week of the destruction of סדום and the seemingly unnatural events that lead up to it, we should just as much keep in mind the seemingly unnatural events that have led to over 45% of world Jewry living once again in ארצינו הקדושה, something that Rav Teichtel and the מהר”ל could only dream of- this is the final return of טבע, and with G-d’s help, we will see טבע return once and for all through the complete גאולה, very speedily in our days. Shabbat Shalom