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God’s masterplan for a utopian society - righteousness, justice, and the way of God

 

Abraham was chosen by God because he believed in the existence of God and was prepared to promote the concept of monotheism to the world. He also believed in God’s control of the world, in his providing individual providence, that He desires a relationship with man, and that the role of the Jewish people is to build a utopian society practicing justice and righteousness and the way of God. The Way of God is the source of Judaism’s ethics. The Sodom and Gomorrah story demonstrates that God runs the world with justice and righteousness. The Land of Israel cannot abide injustice, unrighteousness and sexual perversions. The practice of righteousness and justice by society will bring material and spiritual blessing to the Jewish people and by their example to the rest of the world.

Introduction

 

The mission of Abraham and his offspring is to bring “blessing” to the nations of the world. 

But how will they accomplish this? 

The Torah’s answer is to create a society whose values and practices will ensure God’s blessing. These universal moral values can be adopted by all nations of the world. These concepts were developed by Abraham while still in Haran in Mesopotamia and include the following:

(i). Belief in God: 

Many Jewish commentators ascribe Abraham’s greatness to his recognition of God as the Creator of the universe. The Book of Joshua, for example, emphasizes Abraham’s greatness in his separating from the paganism of his family:

“On the other side of the river, your father dwelt of old, Terach, father of Abraham and father of Nachor, and they served other gods. And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river and led him throughout the whole land of Canaan…. “ (Joshua 24:2-3).

Maimonides, the influential Jewish philosopher and halachic authority, elaborates on this in his monumental halachic work the Mishna Torah:

“He [Abraham] grasped the way of the truth and understood the just cause by his true perception. And he knew there is only one God who rules the world and He created all, and there is no other God except for Him. And he knew that the entire world erred and what caused them to err was that they worshiped the stars and other forms until they totally forgot the truth.”1

But was Abraham really the originator of the idea that one God created the universe? The Torah mentions other monotheists who lived prior to the time of Abraham, such as Cain, Abel, Seth, Enoch, Noah and Shem, and it is difficult to regard Abraham’s monotheism as a unique discovery. Moreover, the Torah relates that following Abraham’s victory over the forces of King Chedorlaomer and his Mesopotamian coalition and Abraham’s rescuing his nephew Lot from Sodom, Abraham is greeted by Malchizedek, king of Salem, who “was a priest of El Elyon (God, the Most High)” (Genesis 18:18). Says Malchizedek: “Blessed is Abram of El Elyon (God the Most High), Acquirer of heaven and earth, ….. “ (Genesis 14:19). It would seem, therefore, that at the time of Abraham there were other individuals, even in Canaan, who believed in a Supreme God who created the universe.2 There must therefore be more to it than this.

One midrashic idea is that Abraham’s greatness was his willingness to go through ten trials to demonstrate his allegiance to God. (An aggadic midrash is a piece of oral tradition written to fill in gaps in the Torah text, interpret the text and enrich it with meaning). One midrash describes Abraham confronting the Mesopotamian ruler Nimrod and being thrown in and saved from a burning furnace when his father handed him over to the king for smashing the idols in his idol store.3 This midrash is most likely based on an analogy with the story of Gideon in the Book of Judges, in that Gideon also smashed the idols of his father (Judges 6:25-32). Nevertheless, there is no mention in the Torah of such a trial. Nor is there any mention of Abraham engaging in similar destructive activities when in Canaan. To the contrary, Abraham lived in harmony with the pagans around him, as did his son and grandson. 

However, what may have been unique about Abraham was his outreach work in promoting belief in God. When outside the main cities of Canaan, he would offer a sacrifice and he then “called in the name of God (YHVH).”4 People would presumably come out of the city to listen to him. He also moved to the south of the country rather than remain in the hill country so that he could engage with more people.

(ii). God not only created the world but He also runs it. 

Commenting on the first blessing given to Abraham in which he was asked to leave his homeland, a midrash says: 

“R’ Yitzchak said: this is analogous to someone who was passing from place to place and saw a certain palace ablaze. He said: “Can it be that this palace is without a supervisor?” The owner of the palace peered out at him and said to him: “I am the master of the palace.” So too, because our forefather Abraham said: “Shall you say that this world is without a supervisor?” Therefore, the Holy One, blessed is He, peeked out at him and said to him “I am the Master of the world!”5 

Abraham looked at the natural world about him and questioned - is it possible for the world to function without Someone controlling it? It must be that a Supreme Being is overseeing it. 

The Talmud points out that Abraham was the first person since creation to call God “Adonai (my Master)” (Genesis 15:8)6 God was his master as well as being master of the whole universe. As R’ Soleveitchick points out: 

“The importance of the Name Adonai (my Master) lies in its lending the Tetragrammaton practical significance, connecting God as an abstract concept to His relationship with the world on a practical level.”7 

(iii). Appreciation that the God YHVH is a God of relationships 

The gods of the pagan world were forces within nature and it would have been far from the pagan mindset to imagine that a force of nature was interested in human beings, and certainly not to engage in a relationship.8 

Because Abraham understood this, he had absolute trust that everything God intended for him was for his benefit. In effect, God was saying to him: “I know that you trust in Me. Now demonstrate this trust and a journey to the land of Canaan.” 

(iv). The ways of God are righteousness and justice 

When already in Canaan, the Torah mentions three values that Abraham promoted and passed on to his children. As the Torah relates: 

“And Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the earth will be blessed though him. For I have known him because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of YHVH, doing righteousness (tzedaka) and justice (mishpat), so that YHVH might bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him” (Ibid 18:18-19).9

Abraham’s system of ethics is about righteousness (tzedakah) and justice mishpat). But what are righteousness and justice? 

The 19th century Biblical commentator R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch defines Biblical justice as “ …..  something that a person has the right to demand from another.”10 It is a societal right to be able to demand equitable justice. Whether engrained in law or convention, justice is designed to provide the framework for an equitable and law-abiding society. 

The Hebrew word for righteousness tzedakah is often considered to mean a charitable contribution and it is discussed in the Talmud in this way. However, its Biblical usage includes much more than this. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch defines righteousness as “something that no man has the right to demand from another, but which God has given everyone the justification to expect.”10 

Hirsch’s definition of righteousness is an attempt to distinguish between the obligatory nature of justice versus what is usually regarded as the voluntary aspect of righteousness, but which in many instances the Torah mandates as being obligatory for the Jewish people.

A simpler definition of tzedakah could be “social justice” as proposed by R’ Jonathan Sachs.11 Another definition might be “the morally right thing to do,” although neither of these definitions emphasize the obligatory nature of many acts of righteousness.12

The combination of righteousness and justice constitutes the full spectrum of obligatory moral activity within Jewish society. Justice or mishpat is often framed in the Torah as a negative prohibition – do not break the law by doing such and such, while righteousness or tzedaka is often discussed as a positive command aimed at preventing an act of unrighteousness. 

To practice justice on a societal level means that a judicial system needs to be in place. On an individual level it means that the rules and regulations set up by this judicial system have to be adhered to. One example of this discussed in the Torah is the use of honest measures in trade: 

“You shall not commit a perversion in justice (bamishpat) in measures of length, weight or volume” (Leviticus 19: 35).

That the Torah regards certain acts of righteousness as obligatory and more than just a good deed is evident from the following passage:

“When you lend your neighbor any manner of loan, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you are lending shall bring the security to you outside. And if he be a poor man, you shall not sleep with his pledge; you shall surely restore to him the pledge when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless you; and for you it shall be an act of righteousness (tzedakah) before the Lord (YHVH) your God” (Deuteronomy 24:10-13).12

There is clearly a spectrum in terms of unrighteousness. Giving a charitable donation to a specific charitable organization is not mandated in Jewish law and the failure to receive such a contribution may lead to no more than disappointment by its administrators. At the other end of the spectrum, a victim may be in anguish because of someone’s unrighteousness. At this point, the individual may “cry out” to God (in Hebrew tze’aka). Preventing such “crying out” is mandated in the Torah:

“If you take your neighbor's garment as security, until sunset you shall restore it unto him; for it alone is his covering, it is his garment for his skin; in what shall he lie down? So that it will be, if he cries out (yitzak) to Me, I shall listen; for I am compassionate” (Exodus 22:25-26).

There is a wordplay here between the two Hebrew words tze’aka (crying out) and tzedakah (righteousness), in that the two words sound similar but differ by a single letter. Nevertheless, the fact that this is a “play” on words should not detract from the seriousness of the situation. When the “crying out” of humanity penetrates the portals of heaven, God cannot remain indifferent: 

“You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you cause him pain! —for if he shall surely cry out (tza’ok yitzak) to Me, I will surely hear (shamo’a eshma) his outcry (tza’akaso). My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you by the sword and your wives will be widows and your children orphans” (Ibid 22:20-23).

The verb repetition here emphasizes how seriously God considers this situation. If the stranger, widow or orphan “surely cries out” (literally: crying out he will cry out) (tza’ok yitzak), then “I shall surely hear” (literally: hearing I will hear) (shamo’a eshma).  

The words righteousness and justice are often found together in the Bible because they need to be practiced together. Righteousness without justice is a Robin Hood situation. Justice without righteousness is a cruel society.

(v). The way of God as the basis of Jewish ethics

What does the phrase to “keep the way of God” in the previously quoted sentence “to keep the way of God doing righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19) mean? R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that it has a dual connotation – this is the way that God Himself takes as well as being the way He wishes everyone else to tread.10 “The way of God” is the basis of Jewish ethics and is often termed Imitatio Dei or the imitation of God. It encompasses not only righteousness and justice, but every aspect of what is called in Hebrew “chesed,” which is translated as loving kindness, grace or mercy. 

God runs His world through loving kindness and all humanity is to imitate this and base their lives on bestowing kindness on others. Just as tzedakah or charity recognizes God’s sovereignty regarding one’s wealth and property, so chesed or loving kindness recognizes that everything about a person comes from God - his body, his possessions, and even his ability to emote, such as his love.14  

As distinct from righteousness/charity and justice there is no prescribed measure or Torah mandate for a specific act of loving kindness other than the general mandate to “walk in God’s ways.” Moreover, whereas the Torah mandate for righteousness and justice applies only for one Jew towards another, an overflow of “chesed” or loving kindness pertains for a Jewish person to the whole of humanity. 

This is the loving kindness that Abraham exemplifies and which is illustrated in the Torah by the story of Sodom and Gomorra.

 

Righteousness, justice and the way of God in the Sodom and Gomorra story

he concepts of righteousness, justice and the way of God are illustrated within the context of a story about the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah. The English word “story” is perhaps an unfortunate one, since this word implies that this is nothing more than a simple tale. However, it will soon become apparent that this is far from being the case and this narrative is deep and multi-layered. A style of this particular story is its use of contrasts, such as Abraham’s concern for righteousness and justice compared to the lack of such concern by the people of Sodom.

This story illustrates the following points:

(i). How Abraham follows the “way of God” with respect to his hospitality and escorting his guests as they are leaving his home.

(ii). That “God’s ways” incorporate both “righteousness” and “justice” with respect to the destruction of Sodom.

(iii). Why the Canaanites have forfeited their right to live in the land of Canaan.

(iv). Why the descendants of Lot, the Moabites and Ammonites, cannot remain in the land of Canaan but must move to Trans-Jordan.

Some of these points are touched on only indirectly and only become apparent after delving into the implications of the story.15

Some initial words about the Canaanites. To readers of Bible in the 21st century a discussion on the moral failures of the Canaanites does not resonate. It needs to be recalled, however, that from the time of Moses and for hundreds of years thereafter, the right of the Jewish people to remove the Canaanites was of considerable relevance. The Torah makes it very clear that the Canaanites are being displaced on moral grounds, with the presumption being that the Israelites are taking their place also on moral grounds (Genesis 15:16).

The story.

Abraham provides some visiting angels with a sumptuous repast assuming that they are travelers in need and then accompanies them a short distance in the direction of Sodom. When they have left, God informs him that he is about to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah because of the outcry coming from the city and He will likely destroy it.16 The angels who have just eaten in his home are on their way to Sodom to investigate the situation:

“And God (YHVH) said: ‘Shall I conceal from Abraham what I do, and Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him? ….  And God (YHVH) said: Because the outcry (za’akat) of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and because their sin has been very grave, I will descend and see. If they acted in accordance with its outcry (ketza’akato) which came to me – then destruction! And if not, I will know” (Genesis 18:17,20-21).

Abraham is stunned. God is the model for righteousness and justice. How it is possible for a God of justice to destroy a city such as Sodom when it undoubtedly contains within it many innocent people? If He does indeed destroy this city, is He then any different from the multitude of pagan deities that bring chaos to the world through their control of nature. At this moment Abraham’s entire belief in a God-given ethics hangs in the balance. One can almost feel his anguish as he asks: 

“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous (tzadik) as well as the guilty, so that righteous (ketzadik) and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge (hashofet, i.e. the one who administers justice) of all the earth deal justly (mishpat)?” (Genesis 18:25).

However, Abraham is mistaken in his conclusions. Abraham and God will now negotiate regarding God’s decision to sweep away the innocent with the wicked and in so doing Abraham will discover that God does indeed operate within the parameters of righteousness and justice.  

In modern usage, the Hebrew word tzadik (a righteous person) is often thought of as someone possessing considerable piety. However, this incorrect translation of Biblical Hebrew distorts our understanding of these negotiations since it implies that only someone truly pious warrants being saved. But this word has shifted in its meaning since the Bible was written.15  The word tzadik in the sentence above means someone in a state of innocence or who is not evil, i.e. a righteous person. This is evident from the following passage from Deuteronomy: “When there will be a grievance between people and they approach the court and they judge them, and they vindicate the tzadik (innocent/righteous one) and find the wicked one guilty. It will be that if the wicked one is liable to lashes …. “ (Deuteronomy 25:1-2).17

Similarly, King David said about the murderers of Ishboshet, the son of Saul and his rival to the throne of Israel: “How much more, when wicked men slew a righteous person (tzadik) in his own house, upon his bed, shall I not now require his blood of your hand, and take you away from the earth?” (Samuel 2 4:11). David is by no means implying that Ishboshet possessed considerable piety. Only that he was innocent of any crime that would justify the death penalty.

Abraham begins his plea for the innocent (tzadikim – plural of tzadik) of Sodom with two requests - one that the innocent not be swept away with the wicked and the second that Sodom be spared if there are fifty or more righteous people in the city. Surely, for the sake of so many innocent people, does not justice demand that the city be saved?

“Abraham came forward and said: ‘Will You indeed sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of (lema’an) the fifty righteous within it? ………  And God (YHVH) said: ‘ If I find in Sodom fifty righteous people in the midst (betoch) of the city, then I would spare the entire place on their account (ba’avuram). Abraham responded and said: ‘Behold, now, I have begun to speak to my Lord although I am but dust and ash. Perhaps the fifty righteous people lack five. Would you destroy the entire city because of the five?’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy if I find there forty-five. He further continued to speak to Him and he said: ‘Perhaps forty would be found there?’ And He said: ‘I will not act on account of the forty.’ And he said: ‘Let my Lord not be annoyed and I will speak: ‘Perhaps thirty would be found there?’ And He said: ‘I will not act if I find there thirty.’ So he said: ‘Behold, now, I desired to speak to my Lord. Perhaps twenty would be found there?’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy on account of the twenty.’ So he said: Let not my Lord be annoyed and I will speak but this once. Perhaps ten would be found there?’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy on account of ten’ And God (YHVH) departed when He had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.” (Genesis 18:24-33).  

A careful reading of this passage shows that God redirects the conversation. God’s focus is on the fate of the city rather than the righteous who will be swept away. This is because if there are sufficient righteous people within it, this has the potential to change the nature of the city and its propensity to do evil.18

 A number of stylistic indicators justify this explanation:

  • Abraham’s initial focus is on the number of righteous people about to be destroyed. What if there are 5 less than 50 people, he asks? God’s concern, however, is not about how many fewer innocent people would suffice for the city to be saved, but about how many innocent people in total there needs to be in the city for it to be saved. After the first verbal exchange, Abraham will accept this.

  • In the first verbal exchange, Abraham uses the Hebrew word lema’an, which has the connotation of purpose and means “in order to” or “for the sake of the fifty righteous within it,” whereas in His reply, God uses the Hebrew word ba’avuram. Ba’avuram can have the same meaning as lema’an (“for their sake”), but can also mean on their account or because of them.19 From this point on, Abraham will accept God’s emphasis rather than his own. The conversation is now “on account of “the number of innocent people.

 

  • The strongest support for this interpretation is that when the negotiations reach the number ten, the conversation is terminated. The presumption must be that both parties are satisfied with the results of their negotiations. Nevertheless, one can certainly ask - why is it that fewer than 10 innocent people does not justify saving the city, whereas 10 or more does? This number seems quite arbitrary. In fact, any number is arbitrary!

An answer is that the number ten represents a congregation of people. These ten non-wicked people provide hope that a city can yet change its ways. Unless those ten innocent people are ensconced within the city, there is no hope.

With these negotiations, God has demonstrated to Abraham that He does indeed run the world with justice. But more than this. By showing that He is prepared to save the city for the sake of a congregation of ten (and saving Lot too), He has also demonstrated His attribute of righteousness(tzedaka). Thus, God runs the world with the combined attributes of justice and righteousness. With this, Abraham’s faith remains intact. Moreover, because God is the model for all human behavior, it follows that Abraham and his descendants should also engage with the world with righteousness combined with justice. 

There is, of course, a question remaining. What if there are still innocent people in the city but less than ten, what of their fate? God does not provide an answer to this question. One has to accept that He has His own calculations. Since He has the capability of saving an entire evil city, one has to take it on faith that He also has the ability of taking care of the righteous/innocent within it. It may be that in certain situations God’s attribute of justice justifies sweeping them away together with the wicked. However, as we shall soon see, there is in fact not a single innocent person in the city. Lot is also not entirely innocent either, although because of the merit of Abraham and the future role of his offspring in the history of Israel he will also be saved. 

The contrast between the values of Abraham and the people of Sodom

Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent during the heat of the day:

“And God (YHVH) appeared to him at the oaks of Mamre and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.  And he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold! Three men were standing before him; He saw, and he ran towards them from the entrance of the tent, and bowed down to the ground.  And he said: 'My lords, if now I have found favor in your sight, please pass not from before your servant.  Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline under the tree.  I will fetch a morsel of bread that you may nourish your heart; after that you shall pass on; inasmuch as you have passed your servant’s way. 'And they said: 'So do as you have said.'  And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said: ‘Make ready quickly three se’ahs of unsifted flour, sifted flour, knead it, and make cakes."  Then Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the youth who hastened to prepare it.  He took curd and milk and the calf which he had made and placed these before them; he stood over them beneath the tree and they ate ……..   And the men arose from there and looked out toward Sodom; and Abraham walked with them to send them off” (Genesis 18:2-16).

A suggestion brought by Rashi is that Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent searching for passing visitors to whom he could extend hospitality.20 However, this is by no means obvious from the text. Rather, the Bible says that the three men he noticed “were standing before him.” This suggests an element of need. The men were travelling in the heat of the day and were likely in the groves of Mamre because of its shade. It was therefore an act of chesed or loving kindness for Abraham to invite them into his tent so they could refresh themselves and partake of some refreshments. The text will now make the point that Abraham not only performed a fitting act of kindness but embellished it.  

All his efforts display his consideration for the comfort of his guests and his demonstration of how special they were to him. He initially downplayed what he was going to do for them (“a little water,” “a morsel of bread,”) but then acted contrary to this. (Common practice is to impress everyone about how much one intends doing but in actuality to do very little). He mobilized his entire household - his wife and his servants - to provide for his guests. The words “hurried” is mentioned three times and “ran” twice. He served them personally rather than leaving it to his servants. And as they were leaving, he personally escorted them from his tent.

Abraham had no ulterior motive for doing all this. He did not know who his guests were and was unlikely to ever meet them again. They were also likely pagans. Abraham could have argued that since he was recently circumcised and now had a deeper relationship with God, his acts of kindness should be confined to members of his own household. Yet nothing was further from his mind. His chesed was for everyone in need who came within his orbit.  

An obvious contrast here is with the people of Sodom. Lot is at the gate of the city and he notices two men (in actuality angels). It is evening and he promptly offers them hospitality for the night. The angels initially refuse but on his urging enter his home. This immediately arouses the ire of the inhabitants of Sodom:

“But before they had yet laid down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, converged upon the house, from young to old, all the people from every quarter. And they called to Lot, and said to him: 'Where are the men that came to you tonight?  Bring them out to us, that we may know them .……  “And they said: 'Stand back.' And they said: 'This one came to sojourn, and he acts as a judge; now will we deal with you worse than with them.' And they pressed exceedingly upon the man, upon Lot, and drew near to break the door” (Genesis 19:4-9).

Abraham had been concerned that ten innocent people in Sodom may be swept away. The text makes it quite clear that there was not one righteous person!  “All” the males of the city, young and old, had converged upon Lot’s house to protest his inviting these people into his home.

The people of Sodom were well off. They lived in a rich and fertile plain. Nevertheless, they saw it as their civic duty to keep all strangers out of their city to preserve the quality of their lives. If they encouraged hospitality or helped out the poor, even more indigents would come to Sodom. Therefore, anyone seeking assistance in Sodom was immediately turned away, and if despite this they succeeded in entering the city they were molested. No wonder then that the “cry” from Sodom had come to God’s attention.   

However, it is not only righteousness that is in short supply in Sodom, but there is also a breakdown of civic order and justice.

The men of Sodom complain that Lot “is now acting like a judge.” This was a reaction to Lot’s comment to them to “not act wickedly” (Genesis 19:7). It could also be that Lot had been providing judicial activities for the city. The Bible mentions that “Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom” (Genesis 19:1) when he saw the two strangers/angels and invited them to his home. In ancient times, the gate was the place where communal activities of the city took place, including judicial ones.

A collapse of justice was now imminent. The men of Sodom were on the verge of violence against Lot’s guests. The men of Sodom demand from Lot that he “Bring them [his guests] out to us, that we may know them” (Genesis 19:5). To “know them’ is to have sexual relations with them. They wanted to sodomize his guests. But why would they want to do this? Could it be they wanted to use his guests for their sexual gratification? Yet when Lot offers his daughters to them, they discard his offer. In any case, it is difficult to see how an entire city could satisfy its sexual lusts on two men or two women. The matter must be deeper than this.

More likely is that their demand to sodomize Lot’s guests was not for their sexual pleasure but as a means of domination. In effect they were saying to his guests - now that you have come unwanted into our city, we will take over your body and do with it as we wish.  

There have been countries that have elevated the love between two males as the highest form of love. But this was not the homosexuality of Sodom. Rather, this was a form of sexual perversion unique to the Canaanites. It was already mentioned early in Genesis when describing the beginnings of the Canaanite civilization:

“And Noah, man of the earth, began and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk; and he uncovered himself within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness, and told his two brethren outside. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and the walked backward, and covered their father’s nakedness; and their faces were turned backwards, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him. And he said: Cursed is Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:20-25).

This is a puzzling passage since it is far from clear who did what to whom. It would seem that Ham, the youngest of the sons of Noah, perpetrated some disgraceful act on their father - and yet Ham’s son Canaan is cursed. But Ham seems to have done no more that gaze upon his father’s nakedness. Why then Noah’s curse on Ham’s son?

Rabbinic sources suggest that Ham had homosexual relations with his father or even castrated him.21 Cassuto agrees that Ham could have sodomized his father but suggests that it was not Ham’s son Canaan who was cursed by Noah but the Canaanite people of whom Canaan was the ancestor.22 The Torah seems to be suggesting that the values of a nation are often present at its beginnings and are carried through the generations. This will be true for Canaan with respect to sexual perversion and will also be true for Abraham’s son Isaac with respect to righteousness, justice and loving kindness. 

 

Why Sodom and Gomorrah?

The question stands out. Why did God pick on Sodom and Gomorrah? Were these really the only wicked cities in the world at the time?

Perhaps they were. Or at the very least, they represented the worst case of unrighteousness at that time. 

Nachmanides, however, has another suggestion with very significant implications. This is that the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah was bound up with their location:

“You should know that the judgment of Sodom was due to the lofty [spiritual] level of the Land of Israel, for Sodom is included in the heritage of God which does not tolerate people [who commit] abominations. And just as [this land] would [one day] disgorge the entire [Canaanite] nation because of their abominations (see Leviticus 18:25), it proceeded that by disgorging this people [the Sodomites] for they were more evil than all of [the other Canaanite nations] both toward Heaven [God] and toward their fellow human beings. Heaven and earth became desolate for them, and their land was destroyed without remedy forever because they became haughty on account of their prosperity and the Holy One, Blessed is He, saw fit that it should be a [warning] sign for rebellious people for the people of Israel who were destined to take possession of the Land of Israel. As He warned them: [The later generation will say … when they will see the plagues of the land] ‘ …. sulfur and salt, a conflagration of the entire Land ….. like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which God overturned in His anger and in His wrath’ (Deuteronomy 29:22). [We can show that the severity of their punishment was related to the land] for there are among the nations other who are exceedingly wicked and sinful, and yet [God] did not perpetrate such [destruction] again them. However, it was because of the lofty [spiritual] level of this land that all this happened, for the Palace of God is there.”23

The land of Israel has an intrinsic holiness and cannot abide social injustice, sexual perversions and idolatry. Those who perpetrate these evils will eventually be ejected from the land.25

This is why the prophets of old, such as Micha and Jeremiah, admonished the people not only about their idolatry, but also about their deficiencies of righteousness and justice. This is also why many of the prophets’ messianic visions include the features of righteousness and justice. 

Another point made by Nachmanides is that if Israel has to go into exile because of its failure to adhere to the covenant, the desolation of the land awaiting its returnees will be a reminder of the destruction of Sodom and its neighbors and why this occurred:

“The later generation will say – your children who will arise after you and the foreigner who will come from a distant land – when they will see the plagues of that land and its illnesses with which God has afflicted it. Sulfur and salt, a conflagration of the entire land, it cannot be sown and it cannot sprout, and no grass shall rise upon it; like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which God overturned in His anger and wrath. And all the nations will say: ‘For what reason did God do so to this land; why this wrathfulness of great anger?” (Deuteronomy 29:21-23)

 

Living lives of holiness

Despite what has been written up to now, the Torah desires more than the avoidance of acts of unrighteousness and occasional acts of righteousness or tzedakah. It wants a nation in which every individual has a love for everyone else. In this way, an individual becomes holy and the Jewish people become a holy nation. This is why many laws related to righteousness and justice are found in the book of Leviticus, a book about holiness. Jews are to be holy because God Himself is holy (Leviticus 19:1). One of the laws of Leviticus is to “love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:19). R’ Akiva considered this a foundational principle of the Torah.26 

The first step in love is to remove all hatred one may feel towards another who has wronged one. This can be attempted by reproving that individual. It could be that the perpetrator was misunderstood. At the very least, when confronted, he may admit his guilt and apologize. This is discussed in the Torah in the following way: 

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow and you shall not bear a sin because of him. You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love to your fellow as yourself – I am God (YHVH)” (Leviticus 19:17-18).

But is it really possible to love another person as much as one loves oneself? The medieval halakhist and philosopher Maimonides thinks it is. In two places in his Mishna Torah, he adopts a positive formulation as the most literal explanation of the text: 

“It is incumbent on every person to love each individual Israelite as himself, as it said “And you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Hence, a person ought to speak in his praise and be careful of his property, as he is careful of his own property and solicitous about his own honor. Whosoever glorifies himself by humiliating another person has no portion the World to Come.”27 

Maimonides is suggesting here that all Jews should have an emotional sympathy to everyone in Israel. Just as you love yourself and are concerned about your own welfare, so should you be concerned about the welfare of others.28 

Nevertheless, when it comes to actions one undertakes for one’s neighbor, Maimonides does not place oneself and one’s neighbor at the same level, since this is neither possible nor halachically required. Rather, the guiding principle is what one would expect others to do for one:

“It is a positive commandment ordained by the Rabbis to visit the sick, comfort the mourners, join funeral procession, dower a bride, escort departing guests, perform for the dead the last tender offices, act as pallbearer, go before the bier, make lamentation [for the dead], dig a grave and bury the body, as well as to cause the bride and bridegroom to rejoice and provide them with all their needs [for the wedding]. These constitute deeds of loving kindness performed in person and for which no fixed limit is prescribed. Although all these commands are only on rabbinic authority, they are implied in the precept. “And you shall love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), that is what you would have others do to you, do to him who is your brother in the Law and in the performance of the commandments.”29 

Not all halachic deciders are in agreement with this. They note that the Torah does not say love your neighbor but “love to your neighbor.” To emotionally love someone else as much as one loves oneself is an impossibility, even if no action is entailed. What one needs to be attached to is everything that belongs to one’s neighbor. Do not envy what your neighbor has but be happy with this. This is why the great sage Hillel formulates this command in a different way than Maimonides: “What is hateful to you, do not do to other.” This negative formulation has become the most well-known means of performing this commandment.30

 

Conclusion:

Abraham discovered the formula for God-guaranteed prosperity and happiness for himself, his family, his future nation, and the rest of the world - to adhere to the way of God and practice righteousness and justice. This will become the Torah’s masterplan for the creation of a utopian state. To promote these ideas, God provided Abraham with a land and a son that would form the basis for spreading these ideas, and Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, will begin to build up a nation.  

Clearly, this is far from being the totality of Judaism. But it is an essential component. 

And it is not always present today in the State of Israel.

One of the reasons is the emergence from a long exile. During this time, Judaism became so immersed in the letters of the law, that it has difficulty sometimes seeing the paragraphs. Another part of the reason is an ultra-orthodox population that views the state as an illegitimate non-Torah abiding enterprise, its population potential sinners, and politics the art of looking after one’s own. Such an attitude cannot foster love, especially when promoted by groups that consider themselves to be the example of what religion is supposed to be about.

Another reason relates to very basic question as to where the laws of a modern state belong within Judaism? Are traffic speeding, driving dangerously while under the influence of alcohol, cheating on taxes, vandalism during protests and other acts of social irresponsibility a derivative of Torah justice, or do they have nothing to do with Torah? 

In this respect, one of the most damaging trends in Israeli society is the common attitude to not become in Hebrew a “frier” (translated as a sucker). If no one else is keeping to the law, then why should I?  This is almost the opposite of abiding by justice.

It was well before the time of Rabbinic Judaism that the prophet Micha said this, but his words are still very germane today: 

“He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love righteousness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micha 6:8).

 

References 

1.   Maimonides,Mishnah Torah, Laws of Idol Worship 1:3.

 

2.   There is a rabbinic tradition that Malchizedek is to be identified with Shem, the son of Noah. This tradition would make him extremely old (TB Nedarim 32b, Midrash Tehillim 76:3, Targum Yonasan, and Rashi to 14:18). Nevertheless, the tradition of the Bible is that monotheism was known to other Semites through Noah and his son Shem.

 

3.   Commenting on the phrase “Haran [the brother of Abraham] died in the presence of Terach his father” (Genesis 11:28) another midrashic explanation (Genesis Rabba 38:13) is that Haran died as a result of his father’s actions. Terach accused his son Abram before the king Nimrod of having smashed his idols and the king therefore cast Abram into a fiery furnace. “Haran waited and said to himself, ‘If Abram proves triumphant, I will be on his side; if Nimrod wins I shall be on his.’ When Abram was saved they said to Haran, ‘Whose side are you on?’ Haran replied, ‘I am on Abram’s side’. They therefore cast him into the fiery furnace and he was burnt to death. It is to this that the name of the place Ur-Kasdim alludes.” Ur Kasdim is interpreted here as Fire of the Chaldees. This and similar midrashim (pleural of midrash) are popular in Jewish educational institutions. They were also told to Muhammad, the founder of Islam, who found them appealing and included this one in the Qu’ran. I have long argued that stressing midrashim that only emphasize Abraham’s monotheism detracts from other important aspects of Abraham’s mission. 

 

4.   Abraham did this between Beth El and Ai on two occasions (Genesis 12:8 and 13:4) and in Beersheba (Genesis 21:33). Promoting knowledge of God is the explanation of Nachmanides, Ibn Ezra and the Radak. Rashi, on the other hand, considers his sacrifices to be a supplication.

 

5.   Midrash Rabba 39:1 

 

6.   TB Berachot 7b. 

 

7.   Chumash with Commentary based on the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Bereishis, p95. The Neuwirth Edition, p OU Press, NY 2013.

 

8.   In the Noah story, God speaks freely to Noah. However, in the very similar Gilgamesh myth, the god Ea is only able to communicate with Upnapishtim about building an ark by speaking to the brick wall of his reed hut. Gilgamesh Tablet XI in The Flood, Gilgamesh and Other in Myths from Mesopotamia by Stephanie Dalley, i, p110, Oxford University Press, Revised edition 2000.

 

9.  There is discussion among Jewish commentators as to the correct translation of this verse and in particular the expression “I know him in order that which …” Nachmanides cites four explanations. He quotes the opinion of Rashi that it is a form of endearment, but admits that this leaves the Hebrew word lema’an (in order that) redundant. His other suggestions are that the world “yodati,” which we have translated as “to know,” actually means “to elevate”, i.e. God will elevate Abraham. Alternatively, it means “I know of him.” Nevertheless, even with these explanations one is still left with the double “that that.” The fourth explanation and that favored by Nachmanides is that “to know” means to intimately know, and this verse is talking about Divine providence. 

10. The Pentateuch. Translation and Commentary by Samson Raphael Hirsch Commentary to Genesis 19:19, p320, Judaica Press Ltd, Gateshead 1989. 

11. Compassion: The Idea of Tzedaka in The Dignity of Difference. How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations by Jonathan Sacks, p105, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2003.

12.  Tzedakah: Brotherhood and Fellowship in Halakhic Morality. Essays on Ethics and Masorah by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, p129, Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2017. 

13. This passage is talking about a loan or other financial obligation past due in which the creditor is entitled to approach the court for collateral. However, neither the creditor nor the court are entitled to enter the debtor’s home and the collateral must be returned if it is required by the debtor. The Stone Edition of The Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings, p1061, Artscroll Series.

14. Tzedakah: Brotherhood and Fellowship in Halakhic Morality. Essays on Ethics and Masorah by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, p177, Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2017. 

15. The Sefer HaHinuch writes in his Mitzva 95 – The precept of building the Holy Temple:  “ … There are seventy facets to the Torah; for each one of them there are great and manifold roots and every root has branches, each of which bears a cluster of desirable fruit, to make hearts wise. Every day they produce blossoms for those who attend them diligently – blossoms of wisdom and good intelligence, bringing light to all eyes.”

16. The relationship between God and the three angels in chapter 18 is complex. At first, God Himself appears to Abraham in Genesis 18:1, but then disappears until Genesis 18:7 when He has a conversation with Abraham regarding how many people are necessary to save Sodom and Gomorrah. An answer provided by Rashi based on TB Sotah 14a and Tanchuma Yashan 1 is that Abraham had just been circumcised and God had come to pay him a sick call. There is an ethical message here. Even God can be pushed aside as it were when acts of righteousness need to be performed. A more literal explanation is that of the Biblical commentator the Rashbam. The first verse of this chapter is an introduction to the visit by the three angels and the text is pointing out that God and his messengers, namely the three angels, are to be considered to be functioning as one. There are other examples in the Torah of a merging of angel and Divine identities. For example, Jacob wrestles with a man but perceives the face of God (Genesis 32:31). Similarly, in Exodus 3:2 and 4 and Exodus 23:21.  

17. Lashes are not given because of a dispute between two people. The Talmud points out that this is a situation of conspiring witnesses (TB Makkos 13b).  

18. That God’s focus is on the entire city as much as its righteous inhabitants is developed in an insightful essay by R’ Yaakov Beasley, and the points raised in this chapter are from his essay. Abraham’s Prayer for Sodom by Rabbi Yaakov Beasley in The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, Tanakh, Parsha, Introduction to Parashat HaShavua, Bereishit, Vayera at http://etzion.org.il/en/avrahams-prayer-sodom.

19. Another example of this is “I will not continue to curse again the ground because (ba’avur) of man, since the imagery of man’s heart is evil … “ (Genesis 8:21). The cessation of cursing the ground is not for the sake of man, but secondary to man’s character. Also, “They provoked at the Waters of Strife and Moses suffered because of them (ba’avuram) …“ (Psalms 106:32). In this instance also Moses did not suffer for their sake but because of their actions. However, there are many times in the Bible where ba’avur does mean “for their sake.”

20. Rashi to Genesis 18:1

21. Rashi to Genesis 9:23 based on TB Sanhedrin 70a. Rashi does not regard Ham as being the youngest son but reinterprets “small” as meaning defective and disgraceful. Hence, he suggests that it was Ham who was cursed. According to the chronology of Nachmanides, however, Ham was the youngest son. 

22. The Story of Noah’s Intoxication in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Part Two. From Noah to Abraham by U. Cassuto, p154, The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

23. Nachmanides to Genesis 19:5.

24. Nachmanides similarly comments on the Biblical verse “For the inhabitants of the land who were before you committed all these abominations and the land became contaminated. Let not the land disgorge you for having contaminated it, as it disgorged the nation that was before you” (Leviticus 18:27-28) that this land will disgorge anyone who contaminates it and is unable to tolerate those who worship idols or engage in sexual immorality (See also Sifra, Kedoshim, Parshesa 4, perek 12:14).

25. Mark Twain would write in his book The Innocents Abroad, describing his brief visit to Palestine in 1867 when the country was under Ottoman rule: "..... A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds... a silent mournful expanse.... a desolation.... we never saw a human being on the whole route.... hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country." However, it has been pointed out that Mark Twain visited Palestine during the middle of the summer when the country always looks arid, he viewed only a small part of the country, namely that with Biblical connotations, and he was probably making comparisons to the United States, which has a different type of climate. Nevertheless, it is the case that no nation that has colonized this country has been able to make it bloom as have the Jews. It is as if the land has been waiting for the return of the Jewish people to reveal its fertility.

 

26. Rashi to Leviticus 19:18 quoting Toras Kohanim 4:12.

 

27. Maimonides Mishna Torah, Hilchot De’ot 6:13.

 

28. Tzedakah: Brotherhood and Fellowship in Halakhic Morality. Essays on Ethics and Masorah by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, p168, Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2017.   

                     

29.  Maimonides Mishna Torah, Hilchot Evel 14:1. 

 

30.  TB Shabbat 31a.

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