Parshat Vayera: Genesis 18:1-22:24; II Kings 4;1-37.
One of the central lessons of the past 18 months has been that positive societal outcomes can only be achieved through systemic, collective effort.
While individual efforts may have a direct positive impact on individual lives, achieving a positive outcome for society is only possible when each individual acts in the best interest of society, and not just himself.
In Vayera, we find a story which confirms this lesson: The choices we make as individuals have limited power if not reflected by society.
Among the many moments of Abraham’s life captured in this portion, in the negotiation over and subsequent destruction of Sodom and Gemorah, we find a story which tragically confirms society’s power over the actions of any individual.
After delivering their message about the future arrival of Isaac to Sarah, the two angels leave Abraham’s house and travel to Sodom, where they are greeted at the gates by Abraham’s nephew, Lot. Lot’s eager hospitality to the angels stands in stark contrast to the anticipated wickedness of the city. Because Lot and his family are only four, Sodom will fall short of the 10 righteous people needed to secure its salvation, assuming more righteous citizens are not somehow discovered.
The question of the nature of Sodom’s wickedness permeates this narrative. Could any place truly be so pervasively wicked as to deserve such complete destruction?
In a commentary, Nechama Leibovitch quotes the Midrashic collection of Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, which emphasizes this very question. The Midrash states, “They issued a proclamation in Sodom, saying: Everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor and the needy with a loaf of bread shall be burnt by fire!”
Leibovitch explains that Sodom’s wickedness was not just a reflection of the evil deeds committed by each citizen, but of the way that cruelty and indifference were enshrined into the very laws of the city. Sodom systematically limited the ways its citizens could care for each other.
Values of empathy, kindness, altruism and care for the vulnerable can only come to define a society if those values are woven systematically into the very fabric of that society. Lot’s generous actions, however well intentioned, were not nearly enough to save a city intent on stamping out generosity, even after Abraham’s tenacious negotiating. The citizens of Sodom were irredeemable because they allowed their very system to become rotten, and that system had to be destroyed.
We have the power to act together, each day, to embed our highest values and best inclinations into the very fabric of our society. That is what differentiates us from Sodom and makes us worthy of second chances in the face of our mistakes and imperfections.
Rebecca Strobehn teaches Jewish Studies at the Frankel Jewish Academy.