Changing the World Begins in Your Living Room (Shabbos 54)

For twelve long years, the five kingdoms of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zvoim and Zoar served as tributaries to an alliance of four kings, headed by Chedorlaomer.  But then, in the thirteenth year, they rebelled. But they were no match for the mighty armies of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him.  They entered, more powerful than ever, showing no mercy to the tribes previously under their dominion.  The kings of Sodom and Gomorroh, in their flight, threw themselves into bitumen pits to hide, while the rest of their people attempted to flee to the hills. The invaders seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and took the people captive, including Lot, the nephew of Avraham.

When Avraham heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he gathered his disciples, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them; and he pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. He reclaimed all the property; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his property, and the women and the rest of the people.

Upon his return from the battle, King Melchizedek of Salem, a priest of God Most High, brought out bread and wine. He blessed Avraham, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.”  And Avraham gave him a tenth of everything.

Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people, and keep the property for yourself.” But Avraham said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to Hashem, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ Give me only what my servants consumed; as for the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre—let them take their share.”

רַב וְרַבִּי חֲנִינָא וְרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן וְרַב חֲבִיבָא מַתְנוּ: בְּכוּלֵּיהּ דְּסֵדֶר מוֹעֵד כָּל כִּי הַאי זוּגָא חַלּוֹפֵי רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן וּמְעַיֵּיל רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן. כׇּל מִי שֶׁאֶפְשָׁר לִמְחוֹת לְאַנְשֵׁי בֵיתוֹ וְלֹא מִיחָה — נִתְפָּס עַל אַנְשֵׁי בֵיתוֹ. בְּאַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ — נִתְפָּס עַל אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ. בְּכָל הָעוֹלָם כּוּלּוֹ — נִתְפָּס עַל כָּל הָעוֹלָם כּוּלּוֹ. אָמַר רַב פָּפָּא: וְהָנֵי דְּבֵי רֵישׁ גָּלוּתָא מִיתַּפְסוּ אַכּוּלֵּי עָלְמָא. כִּי הָא דְּאָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא: מַאי דִכְתִיב ״ה׳ בַּמִּשְׁפָּט יָבֹא עִם זִקְנֵי עַמּוֹ וְשָׂרָיו״ — אִם שָׂרִים חָטְאוּ,זְקֵנִים מֶה חָטְאוּ? אֶלָּא אֵימָא: עַל זְקֵנִים, שֶׁלֹּא מִיחוּ בַּשָּׂרִים

Anyone who has the ability to protest against the conduct of the members of his household and does not protest, he himself is held liable for the actions of the members of his household. For the people of his town, he is held liable for the actions of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the conduct of the whole world, and he fails to do so, he is held liable for the behaviour of the whole world.  Rav Pappa said: And these members of the household of the Exilarch will be held liable for the conduct of the whole world. As indicated by that which Rabbi Chanina said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “The Lord will enter into judgment with the Elders of His people and its princes.” If the princes sinned, how did the Elders sin? Rather, say: God will enter into judgment with the Elders because they did not protest the conduct of the princes.

Everyone wants to be a leader. But with leadership comes responsibility.  And with responsibility comes accountability and liability.  Given the consequences of liability, a leader will want to ensure that the conduct of those in their sphere of influence is suitable.  Therefore, says the Gemara, leadership comes in stages.  If you pass the test of stage 1, and demonstrate your ability to lead, God will take you to the next level and extend your influence and potential impact.

Sometimes we underestimate the reach of our influence and therefore fail to act.  That’s what Rav Pappa was saying to the house of the Exilarch.  Talmudic Babylonia – otherwise known as the Sasanian empire – was a world superpower.  The capital, Mechoza (Ctesiphon), was the largest metropolis in the world.  The Exilarch was the head of the Jewish community.  Rav Pappa’s message was that the Exilarch had the ability and responsibility to be concerned, not only with the needs of the Jewish community, but to lobby the government to intervene in global affairs.

That’s why the Gemara then quotes the verse teaching that the elders are responsible for the actions of the princes.  Aren’t the princes the most powerful people and not answerable to anyone?  Scripture suggests that the Elders have the moral authority to influence the behaviour even of the authorities, and failure to do so makes them liable for state actions or inaction.

After the Holocaust, the United Nations recognized that the world has a duty to intervene to stop genocide occurring in countries against segments of their populations.  The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted in 1948.  The latest iteration is the Responsibility to Protect, the product of the UN World Summit in 2005, which revised the concept of national sovereignty and declared that states have a duty to breach state sovereignty in order to prevent the violation of human rights.

Today, we live in a world that is so interconnected that each individual global citizen has considerably greater potential influence than most ordinary people in the history of humankind.  Politicians are accessible to the average person.  And social media has granted a platform and sphere of influence previously unheard of.  Whether or not you agree with her politics and approach, just consider the environmental activism of teenager, Greta Thunberg.  Or the countless young ‘influencers’ with millions of social media followers and their potential to change the world.

Such thoughts, however, can be daunting, perhaps even overwhelming. Moreover, they can lead to hopelessness, as a person attempts to extend their influence with little success.  When that occurs, don’t give up!  Instead, think about the prescient words of the Kotzker Rebbe: ‘When I was young, I thought I could change the world.  As I got older, I thought I could at least fix my country.  A little older and I thought I’d be happy if I could fix my community.  I now accept that it would be an accomplishment if I could just fix myself.’

Our patriarch Avraham had no idea how powerful he was.  With limited resources, he was able to defeat the great armies of the world and redeem the captives.  And so when Hashem later declared that He would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham believed that he held sway over that action too.  Ultimately, those particular lobbying efforts appear to have amounted to naught.  But the fact that the Torah records his activism for posterity indicates that Hashem wants us to learn from our forefather, “for he will instruct his children and his legacy to keep the way of God and perform charity and justice” (Gen.18:19).  In other words, while Avraham’s advocacy on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah may not have been successful in impacting global affairs, his efforts nonetheless influenced his children for all generations.

We live in extraordinary times when you can impact the world from your living room.  But while you’re saving the world, don’t overlook the flesh-and-blood people right next to you in your living room!  They need your attention and guidance just as much as, if not more than, your fellow global citizens on the other side of the world.

As we find ourselves holed up with our loved ones during the current crisis, remember that they are your initial sphere of influence.  In these days, Hashem has given us an opportunity to strengthen our emotional bonds, and the potential to improve our influence and impact upon the members of our family, well beyond Covid-19.  What you say and do right now will have the potential to change your familial relationships forever.  You have the power to ensure that those changes will be positive ones.

How do you improve your familial influence, i.e. the chances your children will turn to you throughout their lives for guidance and advice?  Just like political advocacy, it requires relationship-building.  That means showing love, compassion, and patience with your family members, as challenging as that may be with everyone living on top of one another.  May Hashem grant you the wisdom and serenity to conduct yourself in the most positive way possible, and thereby improve your relationships and influence for years to come!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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