There are many stories in the Torah that leave us feeling more perplexed after reading them. The story of Sodom and Gamorah is one example from this week’s parashat vayerah in the book of Genesis. In a nut shel it goes like this. Two supposed holy beings come to see Lot, the nephew of Abraham. They want to stay with him but no one is sure what their purpose is for the visit.
The word gets out about these two strangers and a group of townspeople surround Lot’s home and demand to see them. The Torah suggests that this crowd wants to rape the two holy men. Lot tries to protect them and offers these people his two daughters. The next scene is that the special holy beings tell Lot that God plans to destroy this city due to its corrupt nature and that they, Lot, his wife and their two daughters, have to leave immediately.
As they leave in a hurry they tell them not to look back over the town lest they turn into salt. Unfortunately his wife disobeys the warning, gazes back upon the city and she turns into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters flee to a town called Zoar. The daughters get upset that they have no men to be with and they decide to have sex with their father. So for two nights they give him wine and get him totally drunk and each sister has sex with him with the belief that he will be so drunk that he will never remember his sex with them the next morning.
Let me add one more bit of Torah here which is in the preceding chapter. God announces that these residents of the Negev desert communities Sodom and Gamorah are all wicked and that he plans to annihilate them. Abraham gets into a direct dialogue with God trying to convince him that if he can find fifty righteous people will God retract from his threat to destroy them? God says yes. Abraham says if I can produce thirty, or twenty or even ten righteous people will God relent on his declaration to destroy all of them? Each time God says, “Yes.” In the next chapter the story of Lot begins which I just summarized. Obviously there weren’t even ten and so God went about to destroy the citizens of Sodom and Gamorah.
Abraham shows how he is not afraid to challenge God on his judgement. Each time God agrees to his terms ,yet, there aren’t simply those ten righteous people to be found. This is not the first time God carries out a threat of destruction. We harken back to Noah and the flood. In this case Noah obeys God’s instructions to build an ark and never tries to challenge God’s decree to destroy all mankind. Noah’s silence stands in stark contrast to Abraham’s determination and guts to take on God in a debate. This is not so different from Moses who took on God who was about to destroy the Israelite people after the sin of the Golden Calf. There too Moses challenges God’s wisdom and convinces God to relent from starting over with Moses to form a new people. One could say that Abraham and Moses and other biblical figures show that it is acceptable to challenge God’s sense of justice. Again we see that God will change his mind when a powerful case is made on behalf of the Jewish people.
I find this appeal from Abraham to challenge God one of the most fascinating themes of the Torah; to witness how a human being can debate with God. Why is this aspect of the story important for us? What can we learn about how a society turns against itself. And who is today that must be the one who challenges the status quo to preserve a good and decent society form turning against itself?
Judaism has had a series of biblical characters including the most famous such as Job who challenges God for bringing so much disaster upon him by killing all who are near and dear to him. Jews have, ever since then, had a tradition of talking and challenging God when they thought God was not acting fairly towards the Jewish people.
Even today Elie Wiesel taught how Abraham is a different kind of patriarch as compared to the passive and acquiescent Noah. Our best approach is not to say that God is wrong but to ask God to think about his decision. We have this ability respectfully challenge the holy one to rethink a position. In the story of Sodom and Gamorah, God agreed each time with Abraham to spare the citizens if he could produce the righteous people. In the end Abraham never did it and the rest of the story we know.
We are living in times today when we need to produce righteous people who can give credibility to a society like ours and cause us to question our own way of thinking about how we relate to others. Sometimes confrontation does work, depending on the issue. Yet when we can challenge someone to think through an issue, respect them even though we disagree with them we may have a better chance to influence their thinking,
I know we tend to lambast elected officials as crooks. There is mistrust from the top of the elected leader ladder to the local school board. We have righteous people in this country and in the world. Today we are not just talking about elected leaders but folks who serve society in all sorts of capacities. It is not like we are arguing before God for our position to restore public confidence in our communities. We are, instead, arguing our position to the rest of the community which does sit in judgment upon us. Honesty and integrity are critical values that were not in existence in Sodom and Gamorah. They paid the price.
The rabbis said that when hatred divides a society against itself that society will not survive. Do we need a higher bar of moral conduct and integrity today? Do we also need, besides elected officials,corporate leaders and medical professionals, clergy and teachers and business owners to rise to an even higher plateau of leadership and honesty. We cannot be silent like Noah not even before God. As Wiesel said about the Jewish people which was that we speak truth to power even if it is God. We learn this lesson first from Abraham.
Sodom and Gamorah were communities that we should fear the most. It wasn’t a nuclear bomb or a biological disease that destroyed them. Despite all the pleading of a righteous man it was, in truth, simply baseless hatred and mistrust amongst themselves. A city of people who lost a vision of justice towards themselves and imploded. It can happen to any city, and in any country.