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Archive for the ‘Torah commentary’ Category

Judaism, like most religions, has priorities over which sins we must absolutely avoid versus which are less impactful.  At the top of the list, logically, are murder, rape, and turning away from God.  Defining the last of those sins is a source of great disagreements between different religions.  Our human evolution of understanding the world also changes how we define what it means to turn away from God.  Yet, despite what various religious groups claim, despite an old vision of God as opposed to a modern one; we can find underlying moral truths that connect all of us together, by simply reading an incident in this week’s Torah portion and seeing its connection to other parts of the Tanach(which Christians call the “Old Testament”) as well as in the Talmud and rabbinic commentary.

Parashat Vayeiraopens with Abraham hosting 3 men who turn out to be God’s malachim(angels).  They predict the eventual birth of Isaac.  As they move on, Abraham accompanies them and 2 of them head towards Sodom and Gomorrah.  At the point God decides to inform Abraham of the intention to destroy those cities because of their awful sins.  Here is the centerpiece of this incident, from Genesis 18:22 to 25

“The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before God. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  What if there whould be 50 innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent 50 in it? Far be it from You to do such a think, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike.  Far be it from You!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

There are two of the key questions that typically arise about this story.  What exactly are the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah? How should we react to Abraham’s response and challenge to God?

There are numerous religious groups that look at the response of the Sodomites to the men (actually malachim – angels) who arrive at Abraham’s nephew, Lot’s house.  The conclusion drawn is the key sin is the sexual sin of sodomization.  People who believe this will draw a connection to the verses of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.  However, sexual sin is NOT actually stated to be the central sin, or even an ongoing sin in Sodom elsewhere in the Tanach. Rather, the central sin is stated in Eziekiel 16:49, the people of Sodom refused to give help to the poor and the needy.

Two rabbinic pieces of literature, chapter 25 in the midrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer and Sanhedrin 109, offer a lot of detail and elaboration of the level of these sins.  In PRE it describes how the people of Sodom were extremely wealthy, but did not place trust in their Creator and Owner (see the connection to last week’s commentary?). Ergo they never offered food to the poor or a visiting stranger.  Indeed, they did so much to protect their food they even put covers on their fruit trees that prevented God’s singing birds from sitting on the branches and singing. Further, they appointed corrupt judges who ruled against every wayfarer and alien getting any food.  This midrash continues by adding that anyone who gives help to the poor and needy by even giving them a loaf of bread will be burned to death in punishment.

Sanhedrin 109 adds to this by quoting from Job 24:7 “They lie at night naked without clothing and they have no covering for the cold.”  This is in the context of describing an evil community and the Talmud uses this to describe how the people of Sodom treated the poor and aliens – making them suffer even while trying to sleep at night.  It further adds that Sodomites would steal from widows of their own community.  Finally, this page in Sanhedrin tells a story of a young woman who would take bread hidden in a pitcher to poor people.  She was found by the men of Sodom, then tortured by being pinned to the city wall, exposed to being bitten by insects and finally dying.

We saw in last week’s parashahthat Abraham lived knowing God was the actual owner of the world, and respected the reality that no human can own anything forever.  Therefore, they must not just focus on their own wealth, but helping the needy and the poor.  The stories of Sodom add a connection to the multiple Torah statements that we must welcome the stranger through kindness and proper treating. All of this adds to the curiosity of Abraham’s challenge to God to behave justly when judging Sodom.

Rashi points out that the Hebrew word vayigash, translated as “came forward” is often used in multiple emotional situations including war, conciliation, and prayer.  One can conclude that Abraham was trying to be fierce in approaching God, to get God to be conciliatory if enough righteous people were in Sodom, as well as praying that God would do what is proper.  Malbim takes the perspective that Abraham knew that God’s work of destroying Sodom would be done by the malachim, just as the first born of Egypt would be taken by the angel of death.  Ergo, Malbim thought Abraham was pushing God to be sure the malachimwould act properly on behalof of God.  In either case, God is responsible if the righteous are destroyed with the guilty.

Abraham’s interaction with God on this issue concludes by God agreeing to not destroy Sodom even if only 10 righteous people exist there.  However, Sodom is destroyed.  It is clear that God knew what the conclusion would be, yet God not only informed Abraham what was being planned but listened to his pushing God’s requirement for justice and mercy.  Since God knew how this would end why did God allow Abraham’s objection and negotiate with him?

My conclusion is that God was training Abraham, and providing an example for all of humanity, that we must never be afraid of challanging and questioning those in power if we are concerned not only about the sinful doings, but the true application of justice along with mercy and forgiveness.  If we are allowed to challenge God, then there is no human we are forbidden to challenge over justice and morality.  We must challenge those who place their insistence on ownership of parts of the world over the commanded morality that results from accepting God’s ownership.

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The subject sequence of the first few parashot of the Torah is logical, narrowing with each step.  They begin with a focus on the creation of the world (universe), followed by the creation of humanity, which hits the glitch of falling into ultra violence, so in parashat Noach the point is about rebooting humanity.  We see by the end of that parashah, through the story of the Tower of Babel, that despite the rebooting, humanity has consistent moral problems.  In this week’s parasha, Lech L’cha, the focus narrows even more, on the story of Abraham, Sarah and the family they create that begins the basis for the Israelite people.

Beginning with this week’s parashah, the balance of Genesis lays the groundwork for how our ancestors ended up in Egypt, which is the basis for the rest of the Torah.  Many of the individual stories and myths establish thoughts on the essence of God and how these thoughts are applied to our way of life.  Here is one story about Abraham in Lech L’chathat pushes us to think about God.

A fugitive informed Avram (Abraham’s name at this point of the Torah) that a group of kings invaded the homeland taking prisoners and possessions from local kings and cities. One of the prisoners taken was Avram’s nephew, Lot.  Avram gathered his crew, went and defeated the invaders, and brought back the possessions taken as well as the captured people.  Here is what happened next, Genesis 14:17 – 24

“When he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King. And King Melchizedek of Shalembrought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High.  He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator (koneh)of heaven and earth.   And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.  Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.”   But Abram said to the  king of Sodom, ‘I swear to the LORD, God Most High, Creator (koneh) of heaven and earth:’”  I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’

There are numerous ways to interpret the words and actions of Melchizedek, the king of Shalem, as well as comparing him to the king of Sodom.  A first and obvious one, brought up by Or Hachaym, is how Melchizedek brought out food and drink for those who saved his people and possessions whereas the king of Sodom brought nothing.  Avram notices the difference and pays an unrequested tithe to Avimelech.  Avram then refuses to accept anything from the king of Sodom other than what his crew needed to recover themselves.

But there is a lot more in understanding the depth of Melchizedek, described as a priest of “God Most High.”  One question is whether he believes in monotheism like Avram or  follows another God.  A midrash in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer refers to Melchizedek as Noah’s son, Shem, ergo a monotheist.  However, at this time, given what would be the impossible age of Shem, it is better to recognize Melchitzedek as a seperate from Shem.  His name can be translated as “my king of righteousness or justice” and the place he rules, Shalem, can be translated as “peace.” Some commentators say that Shalem is actually Jerusalem, ergo, Melchitzedek is already attached to God in the place Jewish tradition sees as God’s closest connection to this world. So one lesson to draw from this is the only way to truly establish peace and connection to God, is by a life of righteousness and justice.

We can take this even further by looking at the term Melchitzedek uses for God, koneh.  Numerous commentators translate konehas “creator.”  However, the root of this word means “to acquire,” ergo, Ramban and other commentators translate this as “owner.”  The implication is that God did not just create the world, but owns it as well.

This is a critical difference; not because Judaism teaches that God controls how everything happens before we do it, but to remind us that our supposed ownership of any part of the world is very transient compared to the eternity of God. There are numerous examples in the written and oral Torah that can be tied to the idea that God owns the world, not us.  One is in Leviticus 25, where the Israelites are told they must not bother to plant crops every 7thyear, as the land must have a sabbath for rest. Another is Deuteronomy 15 in which any indentured servants must be set free in that 7th year.  Yet one more example is a midrash that tells a story about God instructing Adam and Eve that they must take proper care of trees and plants of the world as if they do not, they are the ones responsible for ruining the world.

Look at the responsibilities implied by God, who is eternal, owning the world.  Our use is temporary and not true ownership. We must treat fellow humans with proper respect, the land needed for planting with limitation and the existence of the environment in a way that will preserve it.  Our personal profit is not as important as the life of righteousness and justice we must follow in order to create a place of “Shalem,” and a deeper connection to God.

When Avram refuses to accept any material payment from the king of Sodom, he uses the same word for God, koneh, as Melchitzedek, illustrating he is perceiving God in a way that acknowledges he must put his personal desires under control to create a better society and preserve the beauty of this world.  You will see a way this plays out in next week’s parashah.  If we want to consider ourselves the descendents of Avram (Abraham), then we must do the same.

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When personal immoral disasters occur, trying to figure out who caused it is often complicated.  It is usually possible to find a justification to condemn any participant in the situation that results in moral (and sometimes physical) decimation.  Yes, there are incidents in which a witness can confirm a horrible misconduct (rape, abuse, bullying etc.), but there are more cases in which trying to clarify the problem source is a difficult and complex discussion. In Noach, this week’s Torah portion, there is an episode demonstrating this.  Here it is from Genesis 9:20 through 25.

“And Noah began to be a man of the earth and he planted a vineyard.  He drank of the wine and became drunk; and he laid uncovered inside his tent.  Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Yafet took a garment, laid it upon both of their shoulders, and went backward, covering the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward and they did not see their father’s nakedness.  And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him.  And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’”

Here are some observations and questions you can ask about this episode:

  • What is the true sin that happened here?
  • Who is to blame for the problem, Noah, who got drunk, Ham who saw his father’s nakedness, or Canaan, who is the one being punished?
  • Ham is actually the middle son, not the youngest son, so who is meant by the youngest son?
  • Why is the punishment and curse going on Noah’s grandson, Canaan, instead of Ham?

In the Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin (on 70a), the actual sin is described as either a castration of Noah or a Sodomizing of Noah.  One argument says it is both.  In either case it is Ham that is declared the one who committed the sin.  This is based on the used word vayar, and he (Ham) saw.  This word appears in other places in the Tanach when someone is about to be abused.  The example given in commentary is when Dinah was seen then abused.  One reason given that Canaan is the one being cursed by Noah is Noah wanted to have a fourth son, and after being castrated could not, so he cursed Ham’s son, Canaan.  Another reason given is that in verse 9:1 God has blessed all three of Noah’s sons, so the only way Noah can get revenge is to curse one of Ham’s sons.

Here is the problem with blaming Ham.  Noah got himself drunk.  The overdrinking of wine is an item addressed in Jewish tradition.  Ergo, what Noah did begins this problem.  Indeed, the larger context of the above explanation of the sin given in Sanhedrin is a series of explanations about the problems with those who do not control their drinking of wine.  So now we can see the complication in the question of who is to blame for the moral outrage occurring here?

Here is another perspective. The story in Sanhedrin is not matching the literal translation of the Noah story.  Ham is said only to see the nakedness of his father.  Noah seems so embarrassed by this, that he decides to take it out on his grandson, Ham’s son, which certainly hurts Ham more than if he were cursed himself.  If all Ham did was to see the nakedness and then inform his brothers, what was he guilty of other than not covering Noah himself.  Ham’s biggest sin was to expose his son to a punishment for something he had nothing to do with.  Ham was protected by the privilege of being blessed by God.  His son was not.

Perhaps that is truly the sin that must be most avoided.  How often do we take our actions in a way to protect the following generations?  How often do we act simply for ourselves versus those who will exist after we are gone? Do we care only about our privilege, or attempting to improve life for those who come after us?

There is a Talmudic story in tractate Ta’anit that Choni Hamagil took a 70 year nap.  When he woke up he saw an old man planting a carob tree. He asked him why he was doing this and he answered, “When I came into this world I found a carob tree that others had planted for me.  Just as my ancestors planted for me, I plant for my descendents.”

In the story from the Torah and the version from Sanhedrin, Noah and Ham are both morally irresponsible.  Both seem to care more about themselves then the following generations.  While the story of Noah surviving the flood is one explaining how humanity survived, the story of his wine drinking, nakedness and whatever Ham did illustrates their moral failure that impacts the next round of humanity’s existence.  A question we must ask ourselves is this:  how do we stop acting like Noah and Ham and create the right world for the children to come?  And the follow up question is this:  are we over focused on pointing at a person to blame or on creating a better world?

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