Thursday, October 24, 2002
Off today with the wife and kid to the Stratford Festival of Canada (never to soon to introduce a youngster to culture, I say). I'll post reviews some time after our return; last round of reviews, from this June's trip, are here.
Since I'm leaving this morning, I won't have time to post much about this week's parshah, which includes, among other episodes, the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and the binding of Isaac. On the latter, see here for a September 11th related post that touches on this critical moment in the Torah. See here for an old Rav Riskin drash that I liked on the same episode.
With respect to S&G, I will just point out three things. First, contrary to popular belief, this story is not primarily, if at all, about homosexuality. Rather, it is about hospitality. Abraham meets the three strangers (the angels) and goes out of his way to be hospitable to them, inviting them to eat and sit with him and preparing an elaborate meal. He is established, in this incident, as the epitome of hospitality. Later, when the angels descend into the city, Lot and his family are the only ones who take them in. And when the denisens of the city surround Lot's house and demand to "know" (which certainly seems to imply to know carnally) the strangers, Lot offers them his virgin daughters instead. To such an extent does traditional hospitality extend. The rabbinic exegetical tradition upholds this view of the story, and has a grand old time imagining the depths of depravity of Sodom's citizenry; they are imagined as living in a kind of moral Bizarro world, where it is a crime to show hospitality, a crime to give alms to the poor, etc.
Second, the whole conversation between Abraham and G-d where Abraham bargains with G-d for the city of Sodom has always bothered me. After all, we know in real life that the presence of righteous people in a city will not save the city from destruction if destruction is decreed. Moreover, it seems like the principle at issue cannot be a matter of numbers; Abraham's argument - of 50, why not 40? If 20, why not 10? - seems to be extendable down to 1, and even below, to a single righteous deed of a single person. So it occurred to me that the whole conversation is best understood as a discussion between Abraham and G-d after the fact of the destruction. In other words, the party of G-d attempts to argue that the destruction of the city was an unequivocal act of justice, because of the utter wickedness of the city, while the party of man argues that you can't call it justice if the righteous are destroyed along with the wicked - indeed, if the party of G-d promulgates such a view, then they will defame the name of G-d as a righteous judge. The cataclysm must therefore be understood differently.
Third, it has struck many commentators that Abraham argues for Sodom but does not argue for his own son when G-d's decree of destruction (apparently) falls on him. Why is this? In the traditional Jewish moral psychology, humans are understood to be possessed on both an impulse to good and an impulse to evil. Both are part of our G-d given nature, and therefore both must have a purpose. As is traditionally understood, the "evil" impulse is better called a "selfish" impulse, and so there is an expression: without the evil impulse, no one would ever build a house, or found a business, or start a family. Greed, pride and lust are necessary to the development of the earth. Where they get us into trouble is when these desires are in charge of our natures, and not harnessed to serve the moral faculty. Why do I bring this up? Because it is said that Abraham is the only man in history to have completely vanquished his evil impulse. And it seems to me that is related to the fact that Abraham cannot argue on behalf of his son. Had it not been his own son, he might have seen the injustice in G-d's apparent command, as he did with Sodom. Because it was his own son, he effectively "recused" himself, and so, had he not heeded the second command of the angel, a terrible evil would have been done, one that would have effectively destroyed the presence of G-d's blessing in the world. There is a danger is striving for selflessness, a danger that can lead to a more terrible kind of immorality even than selfishness.
Have a good weekend; see y'all on Monday.