Friday, 22 October 2010
This weeks Parsha – Vayera – relates the famous story of the city of Sodom as it is turned completely upside down and burnt in every which way one can think of. What lead to its demise?
We are taught that the city of Sodom was a most unscrupulous city! It simply had no values. The type of people living there however, were certainly well off! To live in the city of Sodom – one had to be on the very top of the Wealthiest of the World list. Sodom was all about the good things in this physical world – and if you wanted to be a part of it – you had to bring your own things with you.
There was no such thing as giving anybody anything in a city filled with the millionaires of that day. There was no reason to give to anybody. Everybody already had! And nobody thought twice that there could ever be a situation that somebody didn't! If one would dare to enter the city with a lack of funds, one would be thrown out immediately at best – and killed at worst. Sodom did not want poverty. In fact, it didn't even want to know that such a thing existed. Life – for those of the world of Sodom – was all about enjoying the luxuries of the physical world – without a thought that there might be anything or anyone else on this planet experiencing the slightest tinge of suffering!
Lot – the nephew of Avraham – and his wife on the other hand had obviously learnt a little about the act of kindness, and it seems that they were ready to help – so long as nobody else knew about it! But why did the entire city of Sodom deserve its most ignoble fate?
"The world is built on kindness" – says King David (Psalms 89:3). G-d built a world of give and take. It was His desire that there should be givers and takers. After all, G-d Himself is the ultimate Giver and we – human beings (and other creatures too) the ultimate Receivers. We have nothing we can give to G-d. We can only take. How embarrassing for any human being to consider then the idea that he choose never to give to another because they are poor! How embarrassing – when after all, even he has nothing – without the kind grace of G-d!
Sodom was not destroyed because it was up to no good. It was destroyed because it already had no existence! After all, if it was a city that could not abide by the law of the world – Kindness – the Law of Giving – the law of building the world – the very foundation of life – then it had no existence of its own in any case. The physical manifestation of a city going up in smoke, was no more than the reality of showing the world the true spiritual essence of the city. A city that has crumbled spiritually – is also a city that has crumbled physically. The physical occurrence was merely the reality of what the city was already in a spiritual sense. It had no life. It was not a part of it. Life is about kindness. The world continues to exist because of kindness. A city that does not abide by such a "law" is obviously not a part of this world at all! Demolition to such a city can hardly be considered anything more than a showing up of the reality of its "life."
The strong contrast of life in the city of Sodom against life today, points clearly to the low moral life system which the barbarians of the Bible era lived vis-à-vis ourselves. Today, those with wealth are sharing it with the world. Nobody is left homeless or without food. All are – thank G-d – clothed and continually feeling the kindnesses of those who have been blessed materially in abundance! In stark contrast to that city of Sodom, the world of today has learned about moral values. It seems that in today's times even those with wealth want others to share the same luxuries they have – whether it's fancy cars, large yachts (and all the parties that go on them too) – or whether it's owning a mansion in every country. What types of lessons could the civilized of today ever learn from those barbarians who lived in the times of Sodom?!
One might wonder why it was that Lot's wife was stricken with a death sentence that ended up turning her into a pillar of salt! Perhaps an insight into her ignoble death may help us in understanding the similarities (if we can stretch ourselves to see them) between the city of Sodom and the world which we live in today!
The Torah teaches us that, as things turned out, visitors would (try to) frequent the area for assistance. Some – apparently had the chutzpah – to ask for a pinch of salt (perhaps even just a grain!) The Torah doesn't tell us about everyone's reaction to these terrible crimes of the city of Sodom. It does however tell us that Lot's wife refused to part with her own share of this rare delicacy!
A brief consideration of the condiment salt will make us aware that though much food can be eaten without any necessary toppings, salt does have a way of bringing out the extra taste hidden inside the food. It's not a necessity – granted! But it's much appreciated and makes all the difference of the concept between eating to live – or living to eat! Call it a luxury if you must! Our former case speaks of one who will settle for a piece of bread – if it will help in keeping him alive. Our latter case speaks of the person who feels the need to experience some goodness and taste in the world. Though the extreme of this case is certainly a danger – most people in the world need some sort of spice to keep their spirits in life up! Nothing big… just a grain of salt – sometimes!
The "Lot's wives" of the world however think differently about the salt of others – especially the poor. They consider it a tremendous encroachment on their own lives when the poor man asks for something so "large." In fact, one might even find the "Lot's wives" of the world claiming that they too lack this precious and rare commodity – and that is why they cannot give any of it away. If that is not the reason, they will be forthright in explaining to the one who lacks – that while they (the "Lot's wives") do in fact have this grain of salt (to help keep their spirits in life up which they exclusively need – unlike others), they just don't have enough for everyone. Besides… the poor man can do with the piece of bread – even if it doesn't have the flavour the salt adds to it! In this way, a slamming of the door in the face of the poor man is forthright in coming!
We must judge the "Lot's wives" of the world favourably. It could be quite probable that they too lack the grain of salt after all. It could even be that they don't have enough. (It may after all actually belong to their banks!) And perhaps after all – the poor simply do not need the same sophisticated lifestyle as the wealthy.
With fire and brimstone (literally) G-d turns the entire city upside down. For some reason – perhaps because of their better Middot (character traits), G-d saves Lot and his family – on condition that nobody looks back at the city they once came from. It is not for those who have actually taken part in the criminal activities of a city to be given the right to see its destruction if they have been granted immunity as a gift!
Sadly Lot's wife turns around and is immediately turned into a pillar of salt. Not a pinch and not even a grain… an entire pillar. The reason is clear. This is truly what she was. Her very essence contained nothing less than the desire for the absolute good things in life – and she had plenty of it. (It didn't belong to the bank after all!) In fact, not only this, but she had so much of it – that there was enough to give to everybody who asked her. Many must have come through asking for help. But they were turned away. The "Lot's wives" of the world understand that it's not the question of having or not… there is indeed plenty to give. It's just a question of concealing it from others that counts most.
Of course, those that tread this path of concealment must understand that one day things might truly be turned upside down, and instead of everything looking just right, one might find oneself turned into a pillar of salt for everyone to see. It will be clear then, that all the things that were constantly spoken about as being lacking – were actually there. The only concealment taking place was in the form of a lie!
What was wrong with Sodom?! Let alone parting with a grain of salt, they would steal – everything and anything from someone who already had nothing! But in particular they did it with cunning. Amazingly the entire city would rob a man walking through – with each person taking just a Perutah – one cent away from him. In this way, the courts could not prosecute anyone since theoretically no real crime had been committed. After all, would any judge today judge monetary cases of a victim claiming someone had stolen a cent from him?!
But G-d could not tolerate such behaviour. It is the very essence of the breaking up of society. When those who have are able to take – even that little extra small amount from those who don't – and still claim honesty… this is a city deserving of destruction. It is not because of a small crime. It is because the very purpose of the world has been lost. The kindness upon which the world is built has been destroyed. The "thief" is prepared to take even a cent that doesn't truly belong to him. And the victim must part with it without being able to cry over his loss – because nobody will listen!
Today's stores sell goods at 3.99 "Bob" or even 3.98 in order to attract attention. When one arrives at the till to ring it up, the cashier will charge 4 Bob without giving change. Of course the marketing manager for the goods is happy to stick the price tag with the cheaper amount displayed to give the impression that the item is cheaper, but the finance manager is required to collect that little extra – even though it is not actually written anywhere. Many times the final amount of goods will come to an amount ending in a 5 e.g. 3.95 Bob. When the purchaser pays his 4 Bob – he may never receive his 5 Bob change – for a lack of 5 Bob coins. The owner of the store once again comes away with an extra 5 Bob for every single purchase – amounts adding up to hundreds of thousands of extra dollars during the year! But does the 5 Bob actually count – and is there any theft involved?! Many stores will not include a price – or even tell you one, until the item is rung up – forcing one to pay whatever the cost.
And yet others will claim that while their regular price is ten times as much – it has been brought down now as a discount just for you! When these statements are said without any proof – they too fit into the category of theft. Of course, nobody can ever sue those involved in such transactions because the crime is far too small to warrant any court and judge setting up time to deal with such petty instances in life. In fact, even one's own friends might laugh at one's feelings of dissatisfaction at those making up statements regarding their charge of service or product… Yet the buyer may well feel the pain – immensely!
The bus driver may clip an extra ticket "by mistake." There is never anyone to complain to, but the purchaser must pay. It's only a few Bob… get another ticket!
Was it only the Sodomites who knew about petty theft that never hurt anyone?! Was it only the Sodomites who understood that the wealthy have no obligation to help the poor? Was it only the Sodomites who "didn't really have"? Or do we find that perhaps there still are some in today's world who have modelled the character traits of the Sodomites down to a "T".
Perhaps it is time to revisit the story of Sodom. To revisit the life (and lifestyle) of Lot's wife. To examine if perhaps we can find anything in it that may resemble something of life today. And then – to take a true accounting of ourselves to see whether we can appreciate the real needs of the other – to see our lives for the blessings we have and what more we can do to make sure the other is able to live their life as wonderfully and with all the physical blessings that we live our own. Perhaps we need to learn more about what real honesty is - and what real theft is. Perhaps we need to learn the laws of business, the laws of kindness and the laws of caring for another.