It may be (at least for me writing this in Los Angeles, in the Northern Hemisphere) the middle of summer when the days are at their longest and brightest, but it is a dark time on the Jewish calendar. Parashat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat immediately preceding the 9th of Av (or sometimes on the 9th itself, while the fast is postponed to the 10th, on Sunday), the occasion on which Jews mark the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and in many communities, other tragedies that have befallen our people over history as well. Jewish theology (though it is not alone in this) has a long tradition of framing national tragedies in a narrative of sin and punishment. We see this, for example, in the practice of reading three "haftarot of rebuke" in the weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, as if to say, had our ancestors but repented of their sins, they would not have merited the destruction they experienced, and we would not have to mourn it still. So too should we repent before we are faced with destruction.
Yet we live in a world in which we see acts and policies of sin and evil that do not seem to meet with appropriate punishment. On the other side of the equation, we wonder, what sins could ever be so terrible as to merit punishment in the ways that our people suffered in the last century? What sins could ever be so heinous as to merit any of the horrific wars and massacres that human beings have inflicted on one another over history and continue to inflict on one another even at this very moment?
To think about this challenge, I would like to look closer at, and perhaps offer a reinterpretation of, a few verses from this week's haftarah, Isaiah chapter 1, the last (and arguably what is meant to be the most intense) of the haftarot of rebuke:
8 Fair Zion is left
Like a booth in a vineyard,
Like a hut in a cucumber field,
Like a city beleaguered.
9 Had not the Lord of Hosts
Left us some survivors,
We should be like Sodom,
We would resemble Gomorrah.
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
You chieftains of Sodom;
Give ear to our God's instruction,
You folk of Gomorrah!"
The rabbis of the Talmud, and following their lead the scholars of the later Jewish exegetical tradition, noticed an important difference between verses 9 and 10. In verse 9, the prophet says to the people of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah, or perhaps the prophet imagines the people responding: although God has punished us, although we have suffered, at least something, some of us, will remain. We will not be totally wiped out as we could have been. We will not suffer the fate of Sodom (of which only Lot and his daughters escaped) or Gomorrah. We might compare somewhat to them, but in the end we will not turn out like them, our end will not be like theirs.
To this God responds – not so fast! You are the chieftains of Sodom, you are the folk of Gomorrah.
The rabbis of the Talmud (Berakhot 19a and 60; Ketubot 8b) see in these juxtaposed verses a proof of the principle that "One should not open one's mouth to Satan." When entering a potentially hazardous situation, for example, one should not pray that no danger come to pass or that if it does, that it serve as atonement for one's sins; when comforting a mourner, others may note that death has been the fate of many, but should not mention that it is the eventual fate of all. This is something like the superstition of saying "kenahora" – an abbreviated imprecation against the Evil Eye (Ayin haRa) – when one makes mention either of something very good (one shouldn't "jinx" that good by attracting the attention of the Evil Eye to it) or of a possible negative outcome in the future (lest the Evil Eye decide to make that outcome come to pass). Speaking evil of oneself or of potentially negative outcomes is to invite a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Or in this case a literal one: if you allow the opening to God, or to God's prophet, that you are (only)somewhat like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, God will then not withhold the truth from you that you are just as wicked as they, just as deserving of utter annihilation as they were.
But there is reason to say that the People's error is deeper than one of speaking rashly, of creating an opening for Satan, or for God.
Rabbi Moses Alshekh, a Turkish born scholar of the 1500's who eventually came to live and teach in Tzafat in the Galilee, observed that the misperception of verse 9 flows also from the end of verse 8, in which Isaiah describes the fate of Jerusalem ("Fair Zion") as like a city beleaguered. He imagines that the people speak here with a sense of relief and appreciation to God: "How many are the great benefits of the Omnipresent One upon us, in that He said ‘like a city beleaguered,' and did not say ‘a city beleaguered' without the word of comparison [literally: with the (addition of the letter) kaf (that is indicative) of comparison]." But this is a fundamental mistake: "The prophet responds to Israel: Have you not been grateful to God for saying ‘like a city beleaguered'…and why have you noticed the manner of the language of narrowing regarding your backsliding, but your ears will not take in the word of His mouth, in essence the rebuke, and return to Him and entirely renounce evil?"
What I want to draw from Rabbi Alshekh's commentary – though I have cited only part of his more complex and detailed interpretation – is another explanation of how the people's focus is misguided. They look to an outcome. If their fate is not as harsh as that of Sodom and Gomorrah, then the comparison is just that, only a comparison, an approximation. God, however, insists that they see not how things might turn out, but how things are in this moment. Regardless of what may happen in the future, what punishments may or may not come about, the people and their leaders here and now are just as evil, just as corrupt, as were the people and leaders in those two cities then.
What matters is the behavior of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah, not how they might be punished. What matters – what is to be feared and avoided – is to be "chieftains of Sodom," the "folk of Gomorrah," whether or not one eventually also suffers a fate like theirs.
So what was/were the sin/s of Sodom and Gomorrah, their leaders and their people? According the biblical account (Gen. 19), we see that Sodom was a place in which outsiders – even in the guise of wayfarers passing through – were not welcome, were not safe, and nor were those who did seek to extend hospitality. It was a place in which residents became unable to distinguish evil from good, but could only see perceived greater or lesser evil, such that it "made sense" to avert one act of violence (an attack on the guests in Lot's home) with another (the offer of his daughters for rape or other abuse in their stead).
The rabbis of the mishnaic and talmudic periods add many other details and understandings (though I can only summarize a few here). According to Pirkei Avot 5:10, for example, while many of us think of an attitude of "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" as an average, if somewhat less than generous approach to our fellow person, some say "this is the manner of Sodom"! That is, we become like the people of Sodom if we presume that every person is only responsible for themselves, and that if someone is lacking something they need, it is their own problem and no one else's fault or concern. Protecting individual property is a social benefit, but when it devolves into "I've got mine," it very well may be that we cross over into the way of Sodom. Another text of about the same time period, Tosefta Sotah 3:11-12, claims that it was, ironically, because of the great natural wealth that had been bestowed on the area around Sodom that the people there became haughty, failing to appreciate the Divine source of their fortune and hence failing to follow the moral dictates of the Creator. They became certain that any outsider could only be coming to Sodom in order to take from their wealth, and attempted to prevent any stranger from being welcome in, or even approaching, their city. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 109a-b, tells a series of homiletical stories about the sins and crimes of Sodom that may appear comical on the surface, but build to horror:
They ruled: He who has [only] one ox must tend [all the oxen of the town] for one day; but he who has none must tend [them] two days.'… [Likewise, they ruled,] He who crosses with the ferry must pay one zuz [for the privilege], but he who does not, [entering by another way] must give two. If one had rows of bricks every person came and took one, saying, ‘I have taken only one.' If one spread out garlic or onions [to dry them], every person came and took one, saying, ‘I have taken only one.'…Now, if a man assaulted his neighbour's wife and bruised her, they would say [to the husband], ‘Give her to him, that she may become pregnant for thee.' If one cut off the ear of his neighbour's ass, they would order, ‘Give it to him until it grows again.'… Now, they had beds upon which travelers slept. If he [the guest] was too long, they shortened him [by lopping off his feet]; if too short, they stretched him out…If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a denar, upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When he died, each came and took back his… A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. On the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her.
Sodom appears to be a place with laws, but the laws are based on perverted logic that penalizes the vulnerable (those who do not have resources; the injured wife; the owner of the injured donkey) and abets greed and violence. As the tone of the passage builds and shifts, it is oppression of the poor and the outsider in particular – and those who take the risk of helping them – that comes to the fore as the especially egregious sin of Sodom.
At least one of the lessons of this time of year and this haftarah, therefore is (or could be), paradoxically, not to look to the end, to punishment and destruction, but to the here and now. Do we share any of the characteristics of the "chieftains of Sodom…the folk of Gomorrah"? Do we horde our wealth and resources, fear strangers, oppress the less fortunate under a guise of "fairness"? Could we do what our ancestors apparently could not, examine and change our ways when they fall short, even without a threat of punishment hanging over us, but only because it is the right thing to do? So may it be not just God's will, but ours.