Friday, October 22, 2010

Looking Back Can Be Dangerous

Parashat Vayera: Looking back can be dangerous.
I used to think that when beginning a new venture in life one should review and reflect upon the past. In fact doing so would heighten our ability to see the future in a better and clearer light. The premise is that the experience, good bad and ugly, of the past will enable us to adapt more effectively to new surroundings. Did many of us not do that kind of introspection before embarking on the final trip to settle in Hilton Head?
Maybe that kind of soul work is still important but when I read the in this week’s parasha of the story of Lot’s wife (she has no name) who looked back towards Sodom as God was ushering a chaos of destruction upon the land and its immoral inhabitants and then turned her into a pillar of salt, I thought twice about this advice. Maybe there are times when we need to move forward and not look back because doing so leads us into a deeper psychological and moral funk?
And that is the question for tonight because all of us have probably faced the questions of opening new chapters of life and debated within ourselves about whether it would be healthy to look back to the past or whether doing so drags us down to the painful moments of our past.  Therapists teach us that the search for all dysfunctional behavior lays in the past and by uncovering it we will lift off of us the burdens of that past. Yet there is another perspective that says there is not enough time in a lifetime to resolve every hurt or trauma. Sometimes we just need to move forward with the will to start over doing the best we can.
This story which focuses upon chapters 18 and 19 in the book of Genesis begins with the famous negotiation between Abraham and God. Abraham is trying to soothe god’s anger and intent to bring some sort of cataclysm upon Sodom and its sister city Gomorrah. Abraham first challenges God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”(18:25) They negotiate to the point where God is willing to save the city and retreat from his anger to destroy it if only ten righteous people can be saved.
The next scene in this drama is in Sodom itself. Lot is Abraham’s nephew who with his wife (her name is never mentioned) and their two daughters and sons in-law live in Sodom. The town finds out that two spiritual beings called angels are staying with the family. The townspeople find their presence to be a threat and bang upon the door of the house demanding that they be released into the mob so that they can be assaulted and raped. Lot refuses them. He goes outside his house into the street to negotiate with them even by offering up his daughters or the intended sons-in law. The townspeople were infuriated that the two angels seem to them as if they were rulers over the town. There did not seem to be any win-win negotiation in this story.
Finally the two angels sit down with Lot and the family and say, ‘You and your family get out of here now before God destroys this city because of the people’s iniquity. The angels say to Lot and his family, “Flee for your life Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest  you be swept away. God told Lot he did not have to go up all the way to the hill but he could, instead, enter a little town called Zoar.
The cataclysm came; the prevailing scientific opinion is it was an earthquake. The Torah then says God brought down upon Sodom and Gomorrah a reign of sulfurous fire that destroyed everything in its path. The verse then says, “Lot’s wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt.”(19:26) Rabbinical commentators have struggled with this verse and asked why? What is the point here of her turning back and then receiving this kind of punishment? What does Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt teach us about what the past means when we try to move forward into the future?
The questions are not just why did she turn back but also why did God turn her into a pillar of salt instead of just spreading her into oblivion like the rest of the inhabitants? Was her only crime to turn back? Was this an unfair judgment by God? Why not discuss these questions. The Torah doesn’t address them but they surely beckon to us in trying to understand what is really happening in this story.
In the post biblical book the Wisdom of Solomon in chapter ten it is written, “A pillar of salt stands as a memorial to an unbelieving soul.” In the works of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus he wrote that he had actually seen the pillar of salt in his own days. Some say that the origin of the salt tradition lie in the presence of Mount Sodom, the base of which is a ridge of rock salt that extends for about five miles.  The salt, too, may have a symbolic function, in the ancient Near East; a site was strewn with salt as a mark of eternal desolation in punishment for disloyalty and breach of a treaty.
We can only guess or surmise then that Lot’s wife might have played a role that was not preserved in the text but which compelled her to resist the warnings of the angels. In one midrash (genesis rabbah 51:5) Rabbi Isaac says that she sinned through salt. The story goes that on one night when the angels visited Lot, he said to his wife, “Give these guests a bit of salt.”  She replied; “Besides entertaining guests is it your wish to introduce into Sodom another vile custom that of seasoning their food?  What did she do? She went around among all her neighbors, saying to each, “Give me salt we have guests.” Intending thereby to have the townspeople become aware of the presence of the holy guests in her home and penalize Lot for it. Hence, “she herself became a pillar of salt.”
At least this midrash gives us a theory that Lot’s wife didn’t like taking care of these guests and resented Lots’ request. She in fact instigated the altercation between the townspeople and Lot because of her attitude. One wonders, however, if she was just not ready to make the move that the angels were warning Lot about. Maybe that is where there was such resistance in her to face the future of the unknown as compared to the familiar even if it was in the most corrupt city in the region.
Surely we can see Lot’s wife not as a sympathetic character. But we can possibly understand how not being ready to adapt to the future became a self destructive state of mind for her. And so history has taught us that there are times when we must put aside the anger of the past. Life has reminds us that there are some issues that we cannot resolve from the past and that we must learn to accept them and move forward. We see this often in people dealing with medical issues and psychological trauma. Learning from the past is one thing. Therapy is a great device for that strategy. But living in the past and refusing to accept the reality of the future can lead us down the road to self destructive behavior. Lots’ wife may be an example of that insight.
Let’s face the truth that we all carry our share of emotional baggage from the past. Some of it we escaped. Some of it we denied. Some of it we worked through and transcended it. In the Torah portion the episode of Lot’s wife teaches us to be careful to not get stuck in the battles of the past but rather  to get beyond them lest they become our own storm of the soul like the cataclysmic destruction God reined upon Sodom and Gomorrah and make us bitter forever, a pillar of salt, in yesterday’s woes. God gives us the skills to move forward. It is up to us to take those steps.
Shabbat Shalom

Monday, October 18, 2010

Late at night makes for the best writing.

Difficult Moral Choices

I was watching a televised debate between two politicians. The female candidate urged her incumbent male opponent “to man up,” while adjuring him to take a stand on a policy issue she felt he needed to address. Could it be that our biblical matriarch Sarah thought such words when she stood next to her husband Abraham before Pharaoh in Egypt at the moment when Abraham identified her as his sister instead of as his wife?
Why did he do that? What is the point of that strategy and did it work? First, let’s set the stage of what happened. We read this story in chapter 12 in this week’s parasha entitled Lech L’chah. After God has made all the promises to Abram for progeny and the covenant to the land forever, the Torah story describes a famine in the land. How ironic? The next thing we see is that Abram and Sarai leave the land of Canaan and head down to Egypt. Remember this same famine story occurred to Isaac and his wife Rebecca later on in Genesis. The problem is not the famine but what happened when they appeared before Pharaoh.
I can picture the scene. They are about to enter the palace of Pharaoh and the world traveler Abram, savvy in the ways of the world of Haran, tells Sarai how they are going to play this appearance.  He tells her, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.  If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘she is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live.  Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that May remain alive thanks to you.” (ch. 12:12-13)
What happened after that vignette? Exactly as Abram predicted for as soon as the Egyptian officials saw the beauty of Sarai they took her away from her alleged brother Abram. Then in exchange for this trade they gave Abram sheep, oxen assess, male and female slaves, she-asses and camels. The story ends and all turns out well for Sarai and Abram when God strikes Pharaoh court with a plague because of Sarai.
Pharaoh is not stupid. He figures out what is going on and summons Abram. He gives Abram a ‘what for’ and gets him to admit that Sarai was his wife and not his sister. So then what? Pharaoh hands her back to Abram and angrily deports them even with all the possessions Abram acquired.
That is it. Nothing else on the episode. One would think Sarai would have torn into her husband with even more emotion and anger than Pharaoh showed. I can hear Abram pleading with her to calm down so he could explain it all. Basically Abram lies about Sarai and trades her to Pharaoh into servitude for the material possession.  But did he Abram know that his ace in the hole was God? Certainly this story does not sit well with women today nor should it sit well with men either. Abram is thinking strategically and Sarai gives in because she understands that in public she will respect her husband’s wishes even though she was probably boiling in anger and scared to death as well.
One rabbinical commentator, Moses ben Nachman, or RAMBAN who lived in the 15th century in Spain said, Abraham inadvertently committed a great sin. He should have trusted in God to save him, his wife and all he had, for god has the power to help and to save.” Other commentators see Moses caught in the middle in a moral dilemma between two evils. If he discloses the truth then they will kill him and take Sarai anyway. If he lies, as he in fact did do, then she may be violated by some Egyptian, but at least husband and wife would survive. How realistic would it have been to rely on a miracle in this kind of situation?
So the moral question that Abram faces is between human life and human dignity within a hierarchy of values. But we must understand how the culture of the Middle East plays a role in our understanding of the moral dilemma. Remember if we go to chapter 20 there is a verse where Abram says that Sarai is the daughter of his father but of another mother which is why he calls her sister. He is, therefore, telling the truth when he calls her his sister. Second, in the ancient near east, it was common language for a man to refer to his wife as his sister because the word for sister was considered an affectionate expression or a term of endearment.  One further point is that in the ancient Middle East when there was no father present the brother assumes legal guardianship of his sister. Therefore, whoever wished to take Sarai to wife would have to negotiate with her brother. In this way Abram could gain time to plan escape.  Of course, this went awry when the Egyptian turned out to be Pharaoh himself. 
 I suppose that Abram didn’t man-up by our society’s view of what masculinity is all about. Yet the truth is that people will do things that they have to do when their survival is on the line.  Yes, Abram gambled and when we think about it he may have been thinking that he was playing for time. Did he believe that he would buy her back or cajole the Egyptian officials to trade for her even though she was considered to be quite beautiful? All these questions we cannot answer. We know that this story repeats itself with Abram and Sarai in chapter 20 and, as I mentioned earlier, it also occurs to Isaac and  Rebecca. The bottom line in this story is managing the risk that short term sacrifices will produce long term benefits.
Some say that Moses’ brother Aaron had the same kind of moral dilemma when he constructed the Golden Calf. He did it not because he believed in the calf as a God but because he too was playing for time until Moses descended from being on Mt. Sinai for 40days. Will we believe that line?
The bottom line is that defining the greater good moral standard is not easy. Yes, like in politics so too it is in religion and in the personal ethos for all of us that there are times and situations when one decision is not clearly good and the other clearly bad. We have to take the risk and see the consequences play themselves out. It is a risk situation we all must face in a lifetime. We can wait for God’s intervention but not abdicate our own best judgment.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

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