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WHAT ABOUT BOB?

by Matthew Leader    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

If we had to take a poll to determine which book of the Torah is the most popular, there is no doubt that the book of Genesis would win hands down.

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If we had to take a poll to determine which book of the Torah is the most popular, there is no doubt that the book of Genesis would win hands down. As the meaty part of the "Greatest Story Ever Told", the first few portions seem to be giving us the background necessary to understand how we became a nation and where we are now. However, we know that the stories in Genesis are not merely entertaining narratives. Each one of our forefathers represents a specific attribute that we can strive to attain, and each event in their lives can teach us something pertinent to us today. This week's theme is obviously the life of Abraham, and the Torah portion connects many of the major events of his life: his circumcision, the birth of Isaac, the exile of Hagar and Yishmael, and finally the ultimate test of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac). However, in the middle of all these family events is something that seems somewhat out of place, the story of the destruction of the city of Sodom.

For what we can assume to be a cautionary tale, not many details are given in the text about what actually happened in Sodom to deserve the kind of spectacular Divine attention that the city received. The narrative describes how Sodom's inhabitants accosted visitors to their city. However, we understand that there must be more to their evil than that, and there is in fact a whole list of offenses that the Midrash and commentaries credit to the Sodomites. One of the most f amous is that they were rabidly opposed to any form of hospitality; another is their staunch belief in the principle "even if I don't lose, I don't want you to gain". But what the Ramban, the great medieval commentator, tells us sealed their fate was their refusal to take care of their poor. Every other society of the time, from the Philistines to the Moabites, had some system in place for helping the less fortunate. But if their behavior was so bad, why did Hashem decide to kill them at this specific time? Surely the Sodomite visitors and poor had been suffering for many years. And our second question is, what does this have to do with us? Obviously we could always give more, but most of us support our fellow man in some way, whether it is the Federation, Shabbat hospitality, or spare change to the homeless.

It can be suggested that one question answers the other. The idea of hospitality or caring for the poor is not merely being "nice". It does, in fact, strike at the very reason for our existence. In short, humanity was put on Earth to sanctify G-d's name, and the way we do this is by emulating as many of His divine attributes as we can. When we help a fellow person, we are actually concretizing Hashem's attributes of chesed - loving kindness, and rachamim - mercy. Once a nation, group, or city refuses to carry out their basic responsibilities in this area, they have given up their reason for existence. This message had to be delivered within the story of Abraham, who himself defined the characteristics of chesed and rachamim. From his dealings with the angels visiting his tent and culminating with the Akeidah, Abraham represented everything that the Sodomites rejected. Without the almost ironic picture of the righteous Abraham arguing with Hashem to save the sinners of Sodom, we would have missed out on a big part of the story.

These messages are not just grand philosophical ideas for us to think about. One of the ways that the Sodom ites showed their lack of respect for humanity and Hashem was their subversion of the "rules of fair play", by stealing from each other in ways that were too small to be recoverable in court. Actually, most of us have probably witnessed the following scene: Strolling through the aisles of your local food emporium, you spy protagonist Bob standing before a rack of especially delicious-looking grapes. They're big and they're juicy. Right now, Bob's thinking that he's not about to bring a whole bunch back to the family hacienda without first knowing that they are as good as they look, so he plucks off a couple for "testing". Sure there is a sign specifically asking patrons not to engage in this sort of gastronomic larceny, but, Bob thinks, "What are they gonna do - sue me for one grape?"

Well, no Bob, that's the point. We learn from Abraham how to gain by thinking of other's needs and not taking everything for yourself. In stark contrast, Sodom teaches us that by creatively grabbing and withholding g ood from others, we only embark on the dismal road to destruction.

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Matthew Leader, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, writes from Israel.

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