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Torah Sparks

November 15, 2008 – 17 Heshvan 5769

Annual: Genesis 18:1 - 22:24 (Etz Hayim, p. 99; Hertz p. 63)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 19:1 – 20:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 104; Hertz p. 66)
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1 – 37 (Etz Hayim, p. 124; Hertz p. 76)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Abraham welcomes three wayfarers to his tent, unaware that they are angels. They tell him that Sarah will bear a son. Sarah overhears and laughs in disbelief. God tells Abraham that He has decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham challenges God – “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” Abraham then bargains with God, Who promises not to destroy the cities if 50, 45, 40, 30, 20, even 10 righteous people can be found there.

Two angels arrive in Sodom and are greeted by Lot. The angels urge Lot and his family to flee. They leave, but Lot’s wife disobeys the instruction not to look back and is turned into a pillar of salt. After the destruction, Lot’s daughters, believing that no one else is left alive, trick their father into incestuous unions and each bears a son, the founders of the nations of Ammon and Moab.

Abraham and Sarah travel to Gerar, where Abraham tells its king, Abimelech, that Sarah is his sister. God again protects Sarah; Abimelech sends them away from his kingdom.

God’s promise is fulfilled, and Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, is born. At Sarah’s insistence, Abraham sends away Ishmael and his mother Hagar. God promises Hagar that Ishmael will become a great nation. Abraham and Abimelech make a covenant of peace at Be’er-sheva. The parasha concludes with the Akedah, the story of the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac.

1. Don't Look Back

When they had brought them outside, one said, “Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away.”... Lot’s wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt. (Bereisheit 19:17, 26)

  1. You were wicked together with them, but because of the merit of Abraham you are saved; you are not worthy to see their punishment while you are being saved. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. The verse in the Torah, “in heaven above and on earth below” (Devarim 4:39), is explained allegorically as follows: When it comes to heavenly, spiritual matters, don’t become conceited; know that there are people who are better than you. And in earthly, material matters, don’t complain about your fate; know that there are many people who are worse off than you. Now that Lot had been saved from the destruction of Sodom, he might have thought that he was the most righteous person of the generation. He was therefore told: Flee for your life! Do not look behind you. Think of your soul – don’t look behind you, don’t consider the fact that you are more righteous than the people of Sodom. Flee to the hills – cast your eyes to the heavens, to the righteous people of the generation, and realize that you are among the least worthy of them, and then you will realize that your accomplishments are nothing. (Pardes Yosef [Rabbi Joseph Patznovsky, 20th century, Poland])
  3. Because it will increase your grief for the sons-in-law whom you have left in the city. Further, this could cause delay. Also, so he would not look upon the angels performing their task. (Rashbam [Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1080-1158, France, grandson of Rashi])
  4. Looking upon the atmosphere of a plague and all contagious diseases is very harmful, and they may cleave to him. Even the thought of them is harmful... It was for this reason that Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, for the plague entered her mind when she saw the brimstone and salt that descended upon them from heaven, and it cleaved to her. (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])
  5. Rabbi Yitzhak said: Because she sinned through salt. On the night that the angels visited Lot, what did she do? She went about to all her neighbors and asked them, “Give me salt, as we have guests,” her intention being that the townspeople should become aware of their presence. Therefore, she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt. (Bereisheit Rabbah 51:5)
  6. And they [the angels] said to them: Do not look behind you, for the Shekhinah of the Holy One has descended in order to rain upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire. The compassion of Idit the wife of Lot was stirred for her daughters, who were married in Sodom, and she looked back behind her to see if they were coming after her or not. And she saw behind her the Shekhinah, and she became a pillar of salt. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 25)

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators offer several reasons for the angel’s directive to Lot not to look back at the destruction of Sodom. Some see it as a warning against physical danger, others as a warning against spiritual danger. Why do you think Lot and his family were told not to look back?

Lot’s wife (in the midrash she was called Idit) disobeyed and became a pillar of salt. Was she being punished for aiding the people of Sodom in their attack on the strangers? Did her mother’s heart cause her to trespass inadvertently into God’s realm? Who was Idit and why did this happen to her?

2. That River in Egypt

Abraham journeyed from there to the region of the Negev and settled between Kadesh and Shur... (Bereisheit 20:1)

  1. When he saw that the cities were destroyed and there had ceased to be passersby (anyone going back and forth), he journeyed from there. Another interpretation: In order to remove himself from Lot, for there had gone forth regarding him an evil name, he had sexual relations with his daughters.
  2. “When he saw that the cities were destroyed and there had ceased to be passersby.” This comment seems strange: Was Abraham then living in a desert at the time? On the contrary, he lived in Hebron, where there were always travelers. The problem was that until that time, whenever a traveler was in the vicinity, the local residents would suggest that he go to Abraham for a meal and a donation. Even the people of Sodom would point out Abraham’s house to travelers: “In Hebron there is a man who is unsurpassed for hospitality, and his name is Abraham.” Once Sodom was destroyed, though, far fewer travelers came to him, because there was no one to direct them to him. Thus, Abraham decided it was time to move elsewhere. (Rabbi Yisrael Yehoshua Trunk of Kutno, 1821-1893, Poland)
  3. “To remove himself from Lot.” It would appear that by his action Abraham wished to implant in our hearts shame of sin, for all would say that it was because of his sense of shame that he moved to another country. Indeed, even though Abraham did not have to do so, he nevertheless did it to teach everyone the importance of feeling ashamed of sin. (Mei Marom [Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop, 1883-1951, Israel])

Sparks for Discussion

Rashi gives two explanations for why the Torah tells us that Abraham moved to the Negev after the destruction of Sodom. Perhaps he relocated to better continue his mission of teaching people about God by offering them hospitality. Perhaps he relocated to distance himself from an embarrassing relative. Both reasons are plausible. However, there is another way to understand Rashi’s second explanation.

Could it be that when Abraham heard what had happened between Lot and his daughters, he refused to believe it? After all, things like this don’t happen in nice Jewish families, do they? Perhaps Abraham was in denial and he moved away so he wouldn’t have to hear people talking about incest in his nephew’s family.

To what extent is the Jewish community still in denial about the sexual abuse of children, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, and all the terrible things that occur in our society? How do we let victims, people who need help, and witnesses know that if they come forward they will be taken seriously and not dismissed because “everybody knows that Jews don’t do that”?

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