Sodom and the Akedah, Setting Up the Jewish Future

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Other’s Worshipping an Item Shouldn’t Affect Avraham

Parshat VaYera opens with the famous story of Avraham and the angels. When he welcomes them, he suggests water be brought to wash their legs, 18;4, they can then rest under a tree, and he will feed them. Rashi suggested Avraham had them wash because Arabs of his time worshipped the dust accrued in travel, and he did not want items of worship of powers other than God on his premises.

Kli Yakar does not see why some other people’s choice to worship an ordinary item would cause Avraham to ban it from his house; if people worship the sun, would he refuse to accept sunlight? The same for dust of the earth.

[Before we get to his answer, let’s consider his objection. He writes as if Rashi said Avraham rejected all dust because some people worshipped it, where Rashi in fact only assumed Avraham wanted them to wash off the specific dust they were worshipping. In addition, I could imagine Avraham, the trailblazer of monotheism, being “overly” sensitive to worship of other powers than God. Although, in fact, Jews are not allowed to own items others have worshipped, even natural ones.I do not have immediate thoughts as to why Kli Yakar would miss this, unless—as I think likely—he wanted to make his upcoming point.]

Don’t Feed Idolaters Until They Shun the Idolatry

He is more convinced Avraham did not wish to feed unworthy people (his words—bilti hagunim) and intended to help them repent their ways so he could then feed them. Were they to wash off the dust, the disrespect towards a supposed power would nullify its status as an item of idolatry, and would show they had renounced their worship.

[He already surprises me, because I grew up on the Midrash Avraham first gave people a meal, then introduced them to monotheism by encouraging them to thank God rather than him, Avraham. For Kli Yakar, Avraham got people to give up their idolatry, then fed them. A significant change.

He is referring to the idea of bittul, nullifying, items of worship of powers other than God, a well-accepted halachic concept. It is why Jews who want to purchase small statues often have the seller break off a piece of the item, because if a non-Jew nullifies it before the Jew comes to own it, it is no longer prohibited. Truthfully, having the non-Jew spit on it would work just as well, but the custom became to have the non-Jew knock off a nose or ear, perhaps so everyone who came into the Jew’s house would know s/he had not bought an item of avodah zarah.]

It’s Not In Avraham’s Control

Avraham refers to the water in the passive, yukah na me’at mayim, let a bit of water be taken. Kli Yakar thinks he does not commit to bringing it himself because the washing will only have meaning if it changes their perspective of the dust. The water should “be taken” because only they will know if they are cleansing themselves of their wrong ideas about the dust. He speaks of the water as a vehicle to cleansing their hearts, an idea Rambam had given for why we use water in a mikveh, to remove tum’ah, ritual impurity; ordinary washing can be a metaphor for the intellectual/spiritual cleansing we really need.

He see Avraham’s urging them to rest tahat ha-etz, under the tree, as part of this, except he introduces it as al tzad ha-remez, a sort of hint (implying he thought what he offered until now was peshat, a plainsense reading. It opens the possibility Kli Yakar did not think he was offering derush, and would mean he had a very different view of peshat than most of us.)

He focuses on Avraham referring to under the tree, where he thinks we lean on a tree. He suggests Avraham meant for them to recline under God’s sheltering Presence, an aspect of God Kalev refers to when he tries to convince the Jews they can conquer Israel, because the mighty Canaanites’ shade has left them, Bamidbar 14;9.

Kli Yakar says some explain this kabbalistically—it’s actually in Zohar to Shelah, implying Kli Yakar either did not study Zohar himself, or chose not to refer to it directly in public–that when Moshe sent the spies to see if the Land of Israel had trees, he meant what the Jews had in Shemot 17;7, to see whether God was present among the Canaanites.

Avraham’s tree was going to provide tzel, shade, his hint they should shelter under God, not their other worship. [His idea would work better if our verse referred to shade at all, but it does so only obliquely, with the assumption the reason to recline under the tree was for its shade.]

For Kli Yakar, Avraham’s welcome to strangers started with his convincing them to abandon their idolatry, a move he knew he could not be sure had happened, and only then give them a place to rest, eat, drink, and refresh.

Physical Destruction Foreshadows Spiritual Destruction

When the angels leave Avraham, 18;1, two of them head to Sodom, to save Lot and destroy the city. For the Vilna Gaon, they were consigning Sodom to Gehinnom, predictive of the great Day of Judgment that will precede the resurrection of the dead. He mentions Rosh HaShanah 16b, three books are opened before God, some to eternal life and some to eternal perdition. [I don’t know much Aderet Eliyahu, but seeing the spiritual mirrored in our physical world is already something I have seen a few times.]

He writes cryptically, leaving me to guess he means the physical destruction we are about to read was the least of it, the angels real job was to doom Sodom in that future, more lasting, judgment. He adds these angels went to inform the physical Sodom of their future, and were accompanied by the soul, the reason Avraham accompanies them on the way. For the Gra, Avraham achieves a spiritual life on this earth, and must be part of articulating where bodies went wholly wrong.

Hazal Find Comfort in the Punishment of Sodom

While describing God’s destruction of Sodom, verse 19;25 says God overturned the cities, a phrase Hatam Sofer thinks explain an oddity in Sanhedrin 110b. The Gemara was commenting on Devarim 29;22, where God warns the Jewish people of one punishment for their sins, their land will be devastated by sulfur and salt, the verse comparing it to the way Sodom and Gomorrah were overturned. People will see the destruction and wonder at God’s great ire, will be told it was because the Jews abandoned God, Who expelled them from the Land.

The last words of the paragraph are ka-yom ha-zeh, like this day, allowing Snahedrin 110b to comment, just as a day gets dark and then light, so will the exile. Hatam Sofer wonders why Hazal would read foreshadowing of redemption in a verse admonishing the Jews, warning of the consequences of their sins.

Just Sulphur and Salt Doesn’t Do It

He is also bothered by 19;25 saying God overturned the cities; what was missing with fire and brimstone? His answer starts with Yerushalmi Ta’anit 4;5, which noticed the “chutzpah” of Israel reviving after having sulfur and fire poured down on it. Hatam Sofer theorizes that the sulfur and salt in Devarim will affect only the top layer of the soil; the verse knew Jews would re-plow the Land, uncover soil able to grow produce, and life would go on.

Not so with Sodom. Because their destruction was permanent, God overturned the land while the sulfur and fire were raining down, meaning it penetrated deeply into the ground, negating any future revival. With the Jews and Israel, even the sulfur and fire punishments were temporary, only affected the top layer of soil; without realizing that, though, people would be shocked at the intensity of the divine wrath, punishing Israel just like Sodom.

Except it didn’t. Like a day, as Sanhedrin said, it got dark then light.

The Trees Save Us

He offers another possibility, people will wonder why God punished trees and stones for human sins, the answer being that one day the Jews will return. Had the wrath hit people directly, God forbid there would have been nothing left.

People will ask why God did this to the land, the answer being ka-yom ha-zeh, because like a day that waxes and wanes, the Jewish people’s fortunes will come around again. To leave that possibility open, God “spent” His anger on inanimate objects.

The Akedah Was the Finishing Touch

The story of the Akedah tells us “after these matters,” God nisah Avraham, usually translated as “tested.” Netziv to 22;1 agrees with Rashi the phrase links the Akedah to what came before. Rashi thinks “before” was the party Avraham made to celebrate Yitzhak’s weaning, where Netziv says the verse means Avraham’s whole life, the Akedah would be the pinnacle of a life of growthy by stages.

Circumcision had already perfected Avraham to the point he would be able to make God’s Presence known to non-Jews who would not convert, meaning he had become a person who would have many descendants, would impact the whole world. Whatever the Akedah added perfected Avraham to the point God had no reason to speak to him ever again [notice Netziv’s certainty prophecy is always a matter of need, in great contrast to Rambam’s view.]

Three Types of Nisayon

His answer lies in the word nisah, God “tested” Avraham. Netziv knows a Midrash that gives three metaphors for tests, striking a clay jug, beating flax, and overloading a donkey. The jug strike is truly a test, making sure the clay can withstand pressure.

Beating the flax improves it, and overloading the donkey demonstrates its strength, as is true of asking Avraham to make this very public commitment to obedience to God. From then on, Avraham and his descendants will be known to have the level of love of God fostering acts of kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s Name.

The Akedah made it clear to all. [For Netziv, the Akedah didn’t change Avraham, it made his nature known to the world.]

For Parshat VaYera, Kli Yakar pondered Avraham’s choices on how to influence others, with Netziv’s idea that one way was the dedication Avraham showed at the Akedah; we saw the Vilna Gaon see the physical events of Sodom as a foreshadowing of the End of Days; and Hatam Sofer finding comfort that God prepared the Jewish punishments (of and before those Days) to be easier than what happened to Sodom.

About Gidon Rothstein

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