Zechus of Zoar
Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com.
ZECHUS OF ZOAR: PARSHAT VAYEROH
Shira Smiles shiur 2016/5777
Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein
In Parshat Vayeroh, we see Hashem destroy another civialization that has become so evil it cannot survive. After a full and deep and personal examination of the reports that come to Him, Hashem destroys Sodom and Gomorrah in fire and brimstone. But again, He saves one family, Lot, nephew of Avraham Avinu, and his daughters. The angels sent to save him while they will carry out Hashem’s decree of destruction urge Lot to flee to the mountains and to not look back.
As Lot is being led away from the burning Sodom, he begs the angel for permission to stop in the nearby city of Zoar and not go all the way to the mountain “lest the evil attach itself to me and I will die.” This is a strange request, since Zoar was to be included in the original destruction. Yet Hashem allows Lot to flee to Zoar and spares that city at Lot’s plea.
This series of events raises several questions. First, why was Lot hesitant to go to the mountain? Was it simply that he was physically incapable of going that far, or was there a deeper reason? If it was just fatigue, couldn’t the angels just transport him to the mountain, or shorten the route, as Hashem later did for Yaakov Avinu? Further, how was it possible that Lot’s plea for Zoar was successful and Zoar was spared, while Avraham’s plea for Sodom was not?
Rashi explains that it was not the distance to the mountain that frightened Lot, but rather the person who resided there. The angels were telling Lot to go back to Avraham’s house in the mountain. Lot understood that he was fleeing from a completely evil place. In contrast to those people, Lot himself appeared to be righteous. However, if he were to go back to his righteous uncle Avraham, in whose merit he had actually been saved, Hashem would judge him as evil in comparison, and he would be lost. Therefore, let me go to Zoar, among whose inhabitants I would still be considered righteous.
However, our questions about Zoar still remain. If Zoar was evil and destined to be destroyed, how could Lot’s prayers save it? Rabbi Munk in Call of the Torah points out that Zoar, although evil, had not yet fulfilled its full potential of evil. Whereas Sodom had been evil for 52 years, Zoar had been evil or only 51 years, the numerical equivalent of NA/please in Lot’s request. That difference of one year allowed it to be saved based on Lot’s payer.
We can nevertheless argue that we are each judged on our own merit, not in comparison to others. Why was Lot afraid to be near Avraham? However, notes Rav Dov Yaffe, another element comes into play when one is surrounded by righteous people. One is expected to learn from them and to grow. Lot was afraid that he would no longer grow spiritually even while near Avraham, and for this lack of growth he would be held accountable. Rabbi Yosef Hurewitz, notes that people in positions of leadership, whether parents, teachers, or mentors, present models of behavior. These images are imprinted on our brains and allow us to emulate their behavior. Even the energy or aura of a location can have a positive or negative effect on people, notes Rabbi Bloch in Peninei Daas. As proof he cites the experience of Yaakov Avinu who felt the spirituality of the place he had slept upon fleeing from Esau. Because he had not integrated that feeling, he rushed back to regain and absorb the energy of the “gate to heaven” and grow from the experience.
We are all influenced, however subtly, by our surroundings. We can be influenced negatively, as Lot by the people of Sodom and even as the angels who thought for a moment that they, rather than God, had the power to bring on the destruction, or we can be influenced positively. We have to make the effort to allow the positive experiences of our lives to impact our behavior, whether it is an inspirational shiur we’ve heard, a visit to a Rav, a trip to Eretz Yisroel or to the Kotel.
Lot fought the impulse for improvement. As Rabbi Zaichik writes in Ohr Chodosh, Lot was extremely stubborn. He prefers putting his life in danger to admitting his mistake. He is guided by the desire for physical pleasure. That’s why he chose the green fields and depraved lifestyle of Sodom when he separated from Avraham. He wants to go to Zoar because there he can still indulge in physical pleasures. In Zoar,, he can also delude himself with a sense of power and honor, writes the Modzitzer Rebbe in Divrei Yisroel. Lot, after having learned from Avraham, imagined himself as great a “Rebbe” as Avraham. That was the seed of the argument between himself and Avraham that necessitated their separation. Lot went to Sodom where he was recognized and became a judge. He was so full of his own importance that when the angels struck the townspeople with blindness, Lot thought it was his own doing. He expected that if he stayed in Zoar he would retain some power and honor. However, once you are in depraved surroundings, you begin on the slippery slope that will eventually consume you. Although Lot found he could not stay in Zoar any longer for their evil and ran off to the cave, he still allowed himself to be seduced by his daughters into incestuous relationships. He was too proud to admit his initial mistake in going to Sodom, and then he let the mores of Sodom enter his own psyche.
This idea leads us to an interesting explanation of a Gemorroh that states that Moshiach will come only when the generation is either entirely meritorious or entirely liable and sinful. Since one option seems unachievable and the other certainly undesirable, Rabbi Bick offers a different perspective on this dictum, an explanation that connects very nicely with our current discussion. Lot may think he is meritorious and no longer needs to learn anything from Avraham. While Lot’s outlook may be extreme, many of us may also have a similar mindset. We feel we are doing well spiritually; we do mitzvoth and learn Torah. Therefore we are not willing to admit that there is still room for improvement. When we can all be honest with ourselves and admit that we have not yet reached our full spiritual potential, when we all see ourselves therefore as still lacking, and therefore guilty, (those of us who are privileged to know about Yiddishkeit and keep Torah and mitzvoth) we can hope to bring Moshiach.
We are still left with the question of why Hashem accepted Lot’s prayers for Zoar when He didn’t accept Avrahams’s prayers. Lot had an inner conflict, writes Rabbi Zaidel Epstein in Sefer Heorot. On the one hand, he kept the mitzvoth he learned from Avraham – he baked matzot, he brought and protected guests in his home. On the other hand, he’s very attracted to the physical world and material riches. That’s why he chose to live in Sodom but thought he wouldn’t be influenced by them. This is in sharp contrast to Avraham Avinu who refused to take even a string or a shoe strap from Sodom lest he be influenced by their energy. Now Lot requested to go to Zoar. Zoar was not as depraved as Sodom, but being close to Sodom, it took on some of the characteristics of Sodom. It was as if he were telling the angels, “I get it. My environment can influence me.” Zoar represents Lot’s original mindset, but Lot leaves Zoar and goes to the cave.
Rabbi Schwadron adds that the environment even influenced the angels. When they urge Lot to gather his family, they warn him and say that “we are about to destroy this place.” Only later do they admit that they do not have the power, but must wait for Hashem. If even angels can be influenced by a bad environment, how careful must we be as humans to surround ourselves and our children with only positive influences and avoid negative ones.
In addition, writes the Ohr Hachaim, Lot could not be sure when the time limit for Zoar would expire, and so he chose to leave Zoar quickly. After all, notes Leovdecha Be’emes citing the Baalei Musssar, none of us knows when when are at our end, when we have reached our limit of sinfulness. Is each year judged independently or is there a cumulative effect? Perhaps Lot’s prayer could save Zoar because they had not yet reached their limit. The one year difference between Sodom and Zoar could have made all the difference.
Rav Chatzkel Levenstein raises another important consideration for acceding to Lot’s request. Lot had saved the lives of the angels from the Sodomite mob. Surely now, when Lot felt his own life in danger, as an act of hakorat hatov, acknowledging that kindness to them, the angels felt it was appropriate to accede to Lot’s request.
Further, whereas Avraham’s prayer was for others, Lot’s prayer was a fervent life or death plea for his own life. In such a situation, the prayer comes from the depths of one’s heart and cannot compare to how one prays for another, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz.
Actually, writes Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, all our prayer should be begging for mercy and for our lives. Extrapolating from Rabbi Yonah’s juxtaposition of God’s mercy with His reconsideration of evil [He may have decreed], Rabbi Solomon explains that we are always at Hashem’s mercy. When things have been going well for a long time, we may lull ourselves into believing that all will continue to go well forever. But the truth is that Hashem is merciful and slow to anger. We are all living on credit, but at any time Hashem may reconsider having withheld an evil decree and reissue it. We should always consider ourselves living in a crisis and begging Hashem for mercy when we pray. We are always dependent on Hashem. Every moment is a challenge.
A verse we say every day in our prayers declares this truth: “Hashem is close to all who call to Him, to all who would call to Him in utter sincerity.” This was the truth in the prayers of Rochel and Channah that we read about on Rosh Hashanah. Only when they had given up hope on anyone else’s prayers on their behalf, when they approached Hashem with their own broken hearts did Hashem respond to their prayers and give them children, writes Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter. Rabbi Druck echos this sentiment by citing the story of Purim. The Jews knew that they had a secret weapon hidden inside the palace, a Jewish queen. But when they witnessed her hosting parties for the king and Haman, they felt she had abandoned them, and they could rely only on Hakodosh Boruch Hu – and He sent salvation.
Rabbi Druck continues continues by citing the Gemorroh that no holidays were as joyous as the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. What connects the two? In each we see the power of prayer for salvation. We are familiar with the power of prayer for the New year, but how was it instrumental in God’s reversing an evil decree on the fifteenth of Av? We know that an entire generation, all the men over the age of twenty at the time of the spies were destined to die in the desert over the next 38 years, before the Nation’s entry into Eretz Yisroel. Every year before the 9th of Av, all these men dug their graves. All whose time had come died and were buried, and the others walked away. On this last year, the men knew they were destined to die. In previous years they were uncertain, but this year was decisive. They prayed more fervently than ever. Rabbi Druck quotes the idea that they were indeed destined to die, and when the full moon of the fifteenth of the month came without their deaths, they realized they had been saved, that Hashem had annulled the decree against them as a result of their prayers.
We call a holiday a yom tov, a good day. Rabbi Leff defines these good days as testaments to eternity, of good that transcends time, that transcends that particular day. Tefillah, prayer, has the ability to create eternity.
Hashem wants to bestow good upon us, but we must take the initiative. Hashem wanted to save Lot, but Lot had to balance his decision to live in Sodom with a decision to warrant his salvation. Rabbi Yosef Salant posits that Hashem could have had the angels simply transport Lot to a safe location. But in order for Lot to merit salvation, he needed to take the initiative and take the first steps himself, separate himself from that initial decision, and not look back.
Hashem presents us with opportunities to earn blessings and salvation. Are we ready to pray for the opportunities and take them so that we may merit the blessings and salvation Hashem wants to bestow upon us?