A Rebuilding Year: Parashat Vayera 5776

Growing up as a New York Giants fan was not easy. The team has known good years and it has known bad years. Over the past six years whenever the Giants have made the playoffs they have gone on to win the Super Bowl. The problem is that more often than not they end up watching the playoffs on television. The seventies were especially bad years for the Giants. They played awfully, they traded for aging stars beyond their prime, and they drafted poorly. I remember my father saying ruefully after yet another loss, “The New York Giants: entering our fortieth year of rebuilding!”

From rebuilding to destruction. The residents of the city of Sodom[1] and its environs have committed more than their fair share of evil and the city is doomed to be destroyed. Hashem sends angels to rescue Avraham’s nephew, Lot, along with the rest of his family. Lot takes the angels into his home and soon afterwards the house is surrounded by “the entire town” who all want to kill the visitors. Only after the angels miraculously strike the people blind do they escape with their lives. Sodom’s demise cannot wait any longer and the angels tell Lot [Bereishit 19:15-16] “‘Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you perish because of the iniquity of the city!’. But [Lot] tarried, and the men took hold of his hand and his wife’s hand, and the hand of his two daughters, out of the Hashem’s pity for him, and they took him out and placed him outside the city.” Apparently the city is a ticking time bomb and if Lot doesn’t leave he will be caught in the explosion. But why? While the Torah never explicitly states this, it is understood by nearly all of the commentators that Lot is the only innocent person in the entire town. An angel has been sent to personally ensure his safety. Why can’t the angels wait for another five minutes until Lot gets his stuff together before they turn the city into rubble? And if we’re already asking questions, why is it so important that the Torah mention in two consecutive verses that Lot’s “wife and two daughters” were saved together with him?

I’m saving the biggest question for last: Why was Sodom destroyed at all? The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [109a] enumerates the many sins of Sodom. Most of them have to do with theft, mistreatment of guests and a complete and utter lack of kindness. Many of us remember stories from childhood about the famous hotel beds of Sodom: if the person didn’t fit into the bed then his body was lengthened or shortened accordingly. The inhabitants of Sodom were definitely not nice people, but is this valid reason to destroy the town[2]? The Torah discusses the “Ir Ha’nidachat” – “The Wayward Town” – a town in which the majority of its inhabitants are idolaters. This city must be destroyed and never rebuilt. But nowhere are the residents of Sodom ever accused of idolatry.

I’d like to propose an admittedly radical explanation, one that flips the destruction of Sodom completely on its head. I suggest that the Sodom was destroyed not as a punishment for its years of evil conduct, but, rather, as an act of rebuilding. In Talmudic literature this is called “Soter al m’nat livnot”. Let me explain. After Sodom is destroyed Lot’s wife is killed and Lot finds himself alone in a cave with his two daughters. Lot’s daughters, believing that the world has been demolished and that they are the only remaining living humans, get their father drunk and they sleep with him. Both of them successfully become pregnant and they each give birth to a son. One of the sons is called “Moab” and the other is called “Ben-Ami”, a name that eventually morphs into “Amon”.

As repugnant as their conception was, Moab and Amon are critical factors in the future redemption of Am Yisrael. The Rambam, writing in the Laws of Kings [11:1], teaches that the Moshiach that we all pray for will be a king who will reinstate the Davidic Dynasty. He will be able to trace his blood all the way back to King David. David’s great-grandmother was the famous “Ruth the Moabite”, who converted to Judaism and married Boaz. Without Moab there is no Ruth, no David, and, hence, no Moshiach. David passes on the role of king to his son, Solomon, who passes it on to his son, Rechavam. Rechavam’s mother was a woman named “Na’ama the Amonite”. Without Amon there is no Rechavam and, hence, no Moshiach. In order for Amon and Moab to be born it was critical that Lot’s daughters escape from Sodom. We can take this one step further: had Lot’s wife not been killed then Lot’s daughters would not have taken it upon themselves to sleep with their father in order to ensure the survival of mankind. If Lot’s wife survives there is no Moshiach.

Now we’re ready for a truly radical jump. In Parashat Balak young Moabite woman enter the Israeli camp and seduce Jewish men, eventually convincing them to worship their idols. 75,000 Jews die in an ensuing plague. In retribution, Hashem commands Moshe to kill all of the Midianites, men, women, and children. Why didn’t they kill the Moabite women? Weren’t they the guilty party? Later on the Torah forbids marrying an Amonite or a Moabite [Devarim 23:5] “[b]ecause they did not greet you with bread and water on the way, when you left Egypt, and because he [the people of Moab] hired Balaam… to curse you.” Based on this verse, the Talmud in Tractate Yevamot [77a] permits the marrying of Moabite and Amonite women, because women were under no obligation to give out food and water. Call me a chauvinist, but based upon their prior sexual misconduct it would make more sense if only the Moabite women were forbidden from marrying Jews. Worse, the Torah never explicitly mentions the Moabites or Amonites not offering food or water to Am Yisrael. And even if the men actually acted this way, is this a reason to exclude them from “the club” when nearly every other nation in the world is welcome?

In one of first shiurim I ever wrote[3] I quoted the Netziv of Volozhn who asserted that it should indeed have been the Moabite women that were banned. The problem is that if the women were banned, then Ruth and Na’ama could never have become Jews, and the road to Moshiach would have been blocked. All the other reasons – not giving food and water – are just excuses. I suggest that the reason that Sodom had to be destroyed was to ensure the birth of Amon and Moab. Sodom was destroyed as a process of rebuilding. While no tears were going to be shed over the destruction of Sodom, had it not been for Amon and Moab then the city might quite possibly have been spared[4].

This explanation can help us to understand why the timing of the destruction of Sodom was so important. A verse in Isaiah [60:22] describing the future redemption uses the words “I am Hashem – in its time I will hasten it”. While the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin explains this verse as describing two different types of redemption – one type that will occur at a pre-planned time and another type that can be hastened by good behaviour – the Vilna Gaon explains the term as “when the time for redemption arrives, things are going to transpire very quickly”. The time for the destruction of Sodom was also the time for the adding of another link in the redemption of Am Yisrael. As such, it was destined to occur with great speed, hence the requirement that Lot hurry up and get out of Sodom ASAP.

Whether or not you accept this explanation, one thing is certain: It would be a grand idea if we all just admitted that we haven’t the faintest idea what is or isn’t “Good for the Jews”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya

[1] For the purposes of brevity, I will refer to Sodom and its four sister cities – the “Cities of the Plain” that included Amorrah, Admah, Tzvoyyim and Tzo’ar – simply as “Sodom”.

[2] The Talmudists among us will assert that the residents of Sodom did not keep the Noachide law of “enforcing civil law”. The Rambam rules that a non-Jew who does not keep any one of the seven Noachide Laws warrants the death penalty, and hence Sodom was obliterated. This answer leaves me strangely unsatisfied.

[3] Mattot 5760. This shiur exits only in a bullet note form.

[4] Potential support for this hypothesis can be gained if we notice that the official excuses for both the destruction of Sodom and the exclusion of the Moabite men are a “lack of kindness”. Compare this with the ultimate kindness of the future redemption of Am Yisrael.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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