Dogma or Desire?

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Parshat Vayera contains a very disturbing scene that illustrates the social character of the city of Sodom, the place Lot settled in after he separated from his uncle Avraham. Two men/angels enter the city. Lot, along with other important people, is sitting at the gate. Lot, having been raised in Avraham’s home, steps forward and invites the men to his home. Indeed, Lot insists they spend the night in his home rather than out in the square overnight. Shortly after the strangers enter Lot’s house, all the townspeople, young and old, surround the house and demand that Lot send out the men so that the townspeople can do with them as they wish. Lot refuses. Instead, he goes out his door, closing it behind him, saying, “I beg you, do not act wickedly,” offering to appease them by giving them his virgin daughters for their pleasure instead, “in as much as [these men] have come under the shelter of my roof.” The angels/strangers then open the door, quickly grab Lot back inside, and strike all those at the door’s entrance with blindness. Even so, the Sodomites continued vainly to find the door, and ultimately Hashem destroyed the entire city with fire and brimstone.

Why were the Sodomites so intent on defiling these strangers? Rabbi Schwab notes that tumah/impurity is drawn to kedushah/purity, sanctity. When the angel arrived in Sodom, the inhabitants sensed the innate sanctity within them, were drawn to it, and wanted nothing else but to destroy it. Since the angels were pure sanctity, the people would accept no lesser substitute.

The angels then inform Lot that Sodom will be destroyed, but they are there also to save Lot and his family. Lot relates this information to his married daughters and their families, expecting them to join him. But the sons in law reply mockingly, disbelieving this prophecy and remaining in Sodom.

At the end of Sefer Shoftim/Judges, we encounter an incident eerily similar to the events in Sodom. A man’s concubine went back to her father’s house. After some time, the man traveled to his father-in-law’s house to bring his concubine back. Traveling back home, as night began to fall, the man, his servant and his concubine were forced to seek lodging. The man refused to stay in the Jebusite village, opting to move forward to the Jewish town of Givah. Apparently, there were no inns in the area, yet none of the locals offered the strangers a place to stay. An elderly gentleman, not a native of Givah, was returning home from work, saw the stranded strangers and offered them shelter and food at his home. Later that evening, a group of local lowlifes encircled the host’s home, demanding that he send the man out to them so that they may know him. The host went out to negotiate with them, offering to give them his virgin daughter and the concubine instead to do with as they wished, since this man had come to my house. When the men would not listen, the man thrust his concubine out the door and shut the door behind her. In the morning, upon opening the door, the man found his concubine dead on the doorstep. He took her body home, cut into twelve pieces, sent it to all the Tribes of Israel, and instigated a civil war.

While this incident had terrible consequences and repercussions within Bnei Yisroel, Hashem did not mete out punishment from above as He had done by destroying the entire city of Sodom. The Navi’s Journey notes two major differences to account for Hashem’s response. While the men of Givah were driven by lust, their actions were not standard protocol and were the actions of only a small group of men. In contrast, the behavior of the Sodomites was the standard law of the land, participated in by all the inhabitants, young and old alike. Therefore, the entire city of Sodom was culpable and deserved annihilation. Further, adds the Seforno, the Sodomites were stricken with blindness, but were so driven by their desire that even that did not stop them, and they kept blindly searching for the door.

Rabbi Svei z’l in Ruach Eliyahu discusses this obsession. Generally, when one has a desire but is confronted with undeniable proof that they are moving in a destructive path, they will stop to reconsider their actions. Only when the desire is so completely ingrained in the individual that it becomes part of his essence will he deny any attempt to dissuade him from his path. He becomes arrogant and will keep insisting that he is right. This was the case with Bilaam who entered into a dialogue with his talking donkey in his desire for wealth and glory rather than admit that he was wrong in opposing Hashem’s wishes and going with the Moabites to curse Bnei Yisroel.

Lot himself was guilty of a similar arrogance, although the persuasion was slightly more subtle. Having been raised in the home of Avraham Avinu, his desire nevertheless led him to the land of Sodom whose society was completely antithetical to all Lot had grown up with. Even after he was captured in war and his uncle went to battle to save him, Lot still returned to the fertile lands of Sodom rather than remain with Avraham and the purer lifestyle. When the desire is so strong, it will corrupt every other value so that one cannot accept the truth.

As both Rabbi Dessler z:l and Rabbi Zaks z”l point out, this stubbornness to accept even the possibility of the falsity of their “truth” and norm was the intellectual blindness that preceded their physical blindness. It takes a complete shock to change such behavior when it is a lapse, but even the trauma of sudden blindness will be ineffective when the behavior has become dogma and law. But while we study the Torah and learn such valuable lessons, how many of us actually incorporate those lessons into our personal lives?

In Be’er Moshe, the Oshover Rebbe z”l expands on this idea. Hashem had indeed blessed the Sodomites with great wealth, but this wealth made the Sodomites arrogant and prideful. They and their views were the only things of importance. Nothing could be truth if it did not fit their world view, their needs and their desires. Their egocentricity blinded them to all else and preceded their physical blindness. They progressed from spiritual and intellectual blindness to physical blindness.

Returning to our discussion of the contrasts between Sodom and Givah, let us examine first the difference between a choteh/sinner and a rasha/evil person. A sinner, writes Rabbi Eisenberger citing the the Akedat Yitzchack, is one who knows right from wrong but has occasional lapses because, as a human being, his desires sometimes get the better of him. An evil person, on the other hand, is one who has established evil behavior as the norm. In Sodom, anti stranger behavior was the norm, engraved in the law of the land. Lot hurriedly rushed the men into his home, hoping not to be seen. Later, the entire city came out to harm these strangers. Nothing would dissuade them from their evil purposes. And yet, to them this was not only acceptable behavior, but the preferred behavior. By contrast, in Givah, no one molested the stranger as he waited with his entourage, and the old man was quite open in bringing him into his home. It was only a small group of ruffians who came banging on the old man’s door to harm the stranger. The society in Sodom was a society of resha/evil, while in Givah, there was an element of sinners who had unfortunately adopted some of the ways of the surrounding Jebusite practices. For Sodom, whose entire social value system were corrupted, there was no longer hope of redemption; for Givah, where there were breaches in the wall of preserving Torah life but the values themselves remained intact, there was hope for teshuvah and redemption.

Pirkei Avot/Ethics of our Fathers categorizes four different characters of people. Among them is one that generates a difference of opinion: “One who says, ‘My [property] is mine and yours is yours’ is an average type person, but some would say this is the characteristic of Sodom.” Why are there two divergent views in this perspective? It comes down to the mindset of the speaker, continues Rabbi Eisenberger. One who espouses this characteristic because he is protective of his possessions but nevertheless is able to share with others is the average person, protective of personal space. On the other hand, one who declares his possessions as all his and no one has the right to expect any help from him or for him to ask help of anyone else, that person resembles a Sodomite. We are warned to be careful of going from the “average” mindset to the Sodomite mindset. To counter the mindset of the “average” individual, the Torah provides us with many examples and mitzvah opportunities for doing chesed.

Which of these two mindsets motivates our behavior? What generally motivates our behavior? Is it a desire or a dogma? Become self aware, writes Rabbi Leff in a Teshuva essay in Step by Step. Each of us is born with a yetzer hora, a desire for things and actions that are inappropriate. This is an el zar/strange god within ourselves. It leads to estrangement from God and from society. To overcome this “strange god” within ourselves requires introspection and prayer. We need to find out the triggers for our behaviors, and work on counteracting the negative ones. As the yetzer horo works full time, writes Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, so must we. Hakodosh Boruch Hu will help those who want to be helped.

Rabbi Weissblum in Heorat Derech explains what this introspection entails. Suppose you have an anger issue. You recognize you have a problem, but what is the underlying trigger? Do you have a poor self image and feel your ego is being hurt whenever someone challenges your opinion? Then work on your self confidence. Do you have a problem with accepting authority? [A superior’s or that of the Superior?] Understanding the underlying issue is the only way to solve the problem. Sodom was blinded by their lust. Since they were unwilling to recognize that as an issue, there was no way they could be corrected.

While the society of Givah was not Sodom, the husband certainly had some issues, writes Rabbi Scheinerman in Ohel Moshe quoting the Slabodka Rosh Yeshiva. Was he always finding fault with his concubine that it drove her to leave him and go back to her father’s house? Certainly, on his return trip from fetching her, he was not considerate of her at all. What husband throws his wife out to be molested? And then to dismember and mutilate her body and instigate a civil war among Bnei Yisroel? He started with what was probably a minor issue of anger, but went down that slippery slope by thinking only of himself.

Interestingly, the Ohr Zaruah says that the incident in Givah was actually a replay of the Lot narrative, with the main players being gilgulim/reincarnations of the previous event. The man who took in the travelers was the reincarnation of Lot who had learned from his previous work [in the house of Avraham Avinu] about hachnosat orchim/hospitality. The lawless people represented the citizens of Sodom. The Levite husband was so shocked at the behavior of these locals because he didn’t realize they were symbolic of the previous Sodomites.

Hashem wanted to give the people of Sodom another chance to do teshuvah through the parallels in Givah, but again they failed. Hashem left their minds intact; the prevailing philosophy was not that of Sodom, but they still could not overcome their desire, and again they failed.

Every generation has its challenges, continues Rabbi Eisenberg in Mesillot Bilvovom. The previous generation was challenged intellectually, following many alluring -isms, socialism, communism, Nazism, etc. Our generation does not have those intellectual challenges. Our challenges are those of personal desire. We are being driven by lust and avarice. We are the generation before Moshiach. Without accompanying dogma, there is hope for us that we can listen and overcome our yetzer horo. We can create a proper dogma of following the laws of Hashem revealed to us through His Torah, and we can repair the breaches in the moral wall of society, thereby hastening the arrival of Moshiach.