A Modern-Day Sodom?

Image: The Sonoran Desert in Arizona (by icondigital / Pixabay)

The Washington Post recently printed a first-person account by a geographer named Scott Warren. He has been charged with a felony for giving water and food to refugees in the Sonoran desert. For saving lives, Warren faces up to 20 years in prison.

The policy of routing refugees through the deadliest parts of the desert goes back to the Clinton Administration, by the way. The Trump Administration has added the enforcement of rules against offering any assistance, even water, to those trekking through that desert.

Scott Warren’s story reminded me immediately of a midrash taught by our sages. They told a story they told about their notion of the people most displeasing to God, so displeasing that they merited being burned alive along with their entire region. It is the story of the people of Sodom.

The first mention of the story is in Genesis 13:

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt.
So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;
Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom.
Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the LORD.

Genesis 13:10-13

Next we get the well-known story in Genesis 18-19, in which sends two “men” (angels) to investigate an “outcry” from Sodom. It begins:

Then the LORD said, “The outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

Genesis 18: 20-22

Abraham then famously bargained for the lives of Sodom, getting God to agree to spare the city if 10 good people could be found there.

The angels who “went on” to Sodom were greeted by Lot, who was anxious to get them out of the public square and to conceal them in his house. He does that because Sodom is hateful to strangers, and he knows something terrible will happen to them if they are not quickly out of sight. Sure enough, a crowd forms at Lot’s door, clamoring to rape the men. Lot refuses to release them to the crowd. Later, God rains fire down on the city, and it is completely destroyed because 10 good men could not be found. (Genesis 19)

The sages told more stories about Sodom, fleshing out the tale in the Torah. What had the people done to merit death by fire? Here are some of the stories:

R. Levi said: [God said]: ‘Even if I wished to keep silent, justice for a certain maiden (ribah) does not permit Me to keep silent.’
For it once happened that two girls went down to draw water from a well.
One [young woman] said to the other, ‘Why are you so pale?’
‘My family has no more food left and we are ready to die,’ she replied.
What did she [the first young woman] do? She filled her pitcher with flour and they exchanged [their pitchers], each taking the other’s.
When they [the Sodomites] discovered this, they took and burnt her.
Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Even if I desired to be silent, justice for that young girl does not permit Me to keep silent.

Genesis Rabbah 49:6

and another, about the cruelty to poor men:

If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a dinar (coin,) upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When he died, each [resident] came and took back his [dinar]. 

Sanhedrin 109b

There is another story about a young woman who tried to give help to a hungry man:

A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. When the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written, And the Lord said, The cry ( זעקת ) of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great: whereon Rab Judah commented in Rab’s name: On account of the maiden [ribah]

Sanhedrin 109b

And a later midrash tells us about a variety of cruel practices:

Rabbi Zeira said: “The people of Sdom were the wealthiest people in the world since they were from the fattest and best of the land and all of their early needs could be derived from it, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust” (Job 28:6) When a person wanted to go out and get for himself vegetables, he would say to his servant, take for me an issar worth of greens. He would go and take for him greens and find in its place gold, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust.” And silver would come out of it, as it is written: “There is a mine for silver.” (Job 28:1) Precious stones and jewels would come out of it: “Its rocks are a source of sapphire.” (verse 6); bread would be brought forth from it: “earth out of which food grows” (verse 5); and they did not trust in the shadow of their Creator but rather in their wealth; for their wealth pushed aside their fear of Heaven: “men who trust in their riches” (Psalms 49:7)

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said: They were not sufficiently concerned with the honor of their Creator to provide food for guests and strangers but rather they would cut of the branches of fruit trees above the fruit so as not to provide benefit to birds of the heavens: “No bird of prey knows the path of it.” (Job 28:7)

Rabbi Netanel said: They set up as their judges false judges who ruled with regard to any guest or stranger who entered Sodom, that they should defraud them in their crooked judgment and set them out naked, as it is written: “And the stranger they cheated without justice.” (Ezekiel 22:29) And satisfied with the harvest of the land – they lived in security and peace and quiet without fear of war from their surroundings satiated with all good things and not strengthening the hand of either the poor or the impoverished with food: “Behold this was the son of Sodom your sister.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

– Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 25

For these crimes, God blasted the city Sodom, leaving nothing but a salty mineral desert and a deadly sea beside it. To this day, if you visit the Dead Sea, you will see nothing alive there.

I fear for our souls.

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“Let Your House Be Open”

Image: Many tents, some large and open on all sides. (SanDraP/Pixabay)

Our sages put a very high value on the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, [hospitality.] They looked to Abraham as a model for this, Abraham who loved to welcome guests to his home:

Let your house be open; let the poor be members of your household. Let a person’s house be open to the north and to the south and to the east and to the west, even as Abraham’s house was, for Abraham made four doors to his house, that the poor might not be troubled to go round the house, but that each would find they faced a door as they approached . . .

– Avot de Rabbi Natan 7:17a

I think about Abraham’s tent, and I have to wonder: how did they keep warm? Wasn’t it awfully windy? What about privacy? If the midrash is to be believed, all those things were nothing beside his great concern that his home be open to all who passed by.

I think about the things that would worry me: security for one. Live in an open tent with doors on all sides? Who might get in? What if we got cold? How do you keep the animals out? How do you keep the children in? How do you manage your fears?

Still, Abraham’s tent flaps in the breeze, challenging me. How can I be more like him and Sarah? How can I open my tent even wider?

The Idol in My Pocket

Image: A man using a smartphone. (Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay)

I like my smartphone. It keeps track of my life: calendar, email, alarm clock, social media, maps and GPS. It’s a handy little device. Sometimes I even use it as a phone.

The trouble is that it orders me around. “You’ve got mail!” “You’ve got a Facebook message!” and the presence of a phone on my body at all times means that I’m at the beck and call of the thing 24/7. It interrupted conversations, intruded itself on my concentration, and made a general nuisance of itself.

I rebelled against the little idol: now I have strict policies about how I use the smartphone. When I am meeting one-on-one with someone, I turn it off. I do this because it infuriates me to be talking with someone, and then a bell dings, and our conversation is effectively over: I’m shunted aside for another conversation.

That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.

BT Shabbat 31

What smartphone tyranny do you find particularly annoying? Has that changed your own behavior in any way? Should it?

Begging for Mercy

Image: Two hands writing a letter. (Stevanovik/Shutterstock)

The atrocity at our southern border on November 25 fills me with tears and rage. It is wrong to use tear gas on little children. The fact that these children were in the arms of parents who wished to apply for asylum from violence in Central American makes it more, not less wrong. 

Customs and Border Protection agents used tear gas against migrants attempting to seek asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry at the Mexico/California border. Note: these people were doing nothing illegal. It is legal to apply for asylum. Our government has systems in place for evaluating the stories people bring, and the danger they actually face. Then, after evaluating their stories, some people get to stay and many people do not.

I have known many people from Central America. My Spanish teacher in college was from Guatemala. My son worked in orphanages in Costa Rica during his summers in college. I’ve had friends from Honduras and Nicaragua. They are not monsters. They are people like you and me. 

I could write, as I have written before, about the Biblical commandments to welcome guests, to be kind to strangers, but you have already read all that. The Torah is clear: we should not be doing this stuff, or anything like it.

Yet today my tax dollars paid for Customs and Border Protection personnel to fire tear gas rounds at these people, ordinary people. People fleeing trouble, carrying their children. We tear gassed children.

Tonight I wrote postcards to my Senators and to my Representative and I begged them to do something to stop this cruelty. Tomorrow I will phone them to make the same point.

Please join me in pleading for mercy for these poor people. They have not done anything to us. They are not doing anything illegal. 

We Can Change – Here’s Proof!

Image:  Welcome sign (rebeck96/pixabay)

Back in 2013, I wrote a blog post about my desire to become more hospitable:

Excerpts from The Hospitality Challenge: I Dare You!:

…I am in the process of moving into a new home. I’m organizing it with two goals in mind.  (1) It needs to be accessible enough that my honey and I can get old in it, and disabled friends can come to visit with dignity. (2) It needs to be set up like the Tent of Abraham, to welcome friends and strangers who will become new friends.

I am a teaching rabbi, and I admit, part of it is that I need to do more of my teaching in an environment that gentler on my own disabilities. But more of it is that I know this works, because it worked on me. Our home will not be a synagogue or a substitute for a synagogue. It will be a Jewish home, hospitably open to other people.  We’ll find them at synagogue, we’ll find them in class, we’ll find them when they wander into our lives. And they will be welcome. And then we will teach by example: you can do this. Invite someone over.

Linda and I are both introverts. This is going to require some stretching. That’s why I’m writing about it under the #BlogElul topic “Dare.”

Committing to ongoing hospitality requires daring from my introverted soul.  I worry that I’m an awful housekeeper, I’m not a very good cook, I tend to run around barefoot at home, the dogs will misbehave, what will we do if they don’t leave? what will I do if they criticize me? what if what if what if … and it simply doesn’t matter. I’m going to give this mitzvah a go.


Now, five years later, I can tell you that I’ve changed. Linda and I regularly “have folks over” here at Beit Adar/Burnett, even though we are still introverts and my disabilities have continued to progress. We have regular “Pot Luck Dessert Havdalahs” and guests are a constant. I carefully do not think of it as “entertaining” – it’s the mitzvah of hakhnasat orchim, welcoming guests.

I have grown beyond (some of) my self-centered habits and worries. My disabilities have grown, but so has my world.

I brush aside whatever project is sprawled across the dining room table, and they enter. I apologize for whatever mess there is – once– and then I ignore it, because this is not about Better Homes & Gardens:  this is a holy place, our Jewish home.

Potluck Shabbat!

Image: An assortment of foods in colorful bowls. (Photo: fotosunny/Shutterstock)

I’m so excited! I love inviting my students to a potluck Shabbat evening, and I’ve sent out invitations for later this month.

I thought I’d share my “to-do” list here, in case any readers are interested in inviting friends for a potluck Shabbat. Hospitality is a mitzvah, remember – this is something you can do that will enrich your life, enrich your Shabbat, and build your community.

If you are thinking, “Oh no, my house is cluttered!” I will share with you that I am a haphazard housekeeper and practically a Queen of Clutter. I have decided not to let that stop me. If some room needs to be off limits, I shut the door.  If they see that I’m cluttery, well, that will let them feel better about their own housekeeping!

  1. Decide who to invite. If you are anxious about entertaining, keep it small. If you are comfortable feeding numbers, go for it. Either way, decide if you are also inviting significant others and children. If your house isn’t baby-proofed, you should warn parents about that.
  2. Choose a way to send invitations, and how you’ll keep track of numbers. I used Eventbrite, since I was inviting 36 people plus possible family folks. You might choose an online invitation service like Evite, or just do it via email or paper invitations. Or phone calls (for that retro feeling.)
  3. Plan your menu. I generally make a vegan main dish (black beans and brown rice  this month) and have challah, wine, and grape juice. I invite guests to bring a vegetarian side dish, salad, or dessert. I personally do not like to try to track what everyone is bringing, so we get what we get. I usually have a box of cookies ready if no one brings dessert. If you are not a cook, cheese pizza makes a nice main dish.
  4. Make your grocery list. Be sure to add to it paper napkins and plastic silverware and cups if you will need them. Also butter and/or honey for the challah.
  5. Check your kiddush cup or other ritual objects well ahead of time. Can you find them? Do they need polishing or de-waxing? Have you got Shabbat candles and matches?
  6. Got pets? Decide what their situation will be during the evening. Also, warn guests who may be allergic that you’ve got them.
  7. Have extra serving utensils ready. It’s amazing how many people get here and then realize they didn’t bring forks to serve their salad.
  8. Decide where people will put the food when they arrive. I have them put it directly on the table. Some people then sit at the table, and if there are more than 12 people (the max I can seat at one table) then I make sure I have chairs for the rest. They’ll spread out in the living room and on the patio.
  9. Plan some place where people can put coats, etc. I usually have them put them on my bed.
  10. Make sure you have a bentcher or other text for the blessings. Don’t rely on memory unless you are really sure of it.

On Friday:

  1. Set the table.
  2. Have the food ready. Be sure to have wine, grape juice, and water on the table.
  3. Welcome your guests!

One other thing it’s good to decide ahead of time; do you want help with clean up? What specific jobs can people do to help you with it? That way, when someone offers, you’ll be ready with something for them to do. I usually put a pot of water on the counter for silverware, so it is not piled in with everything else in the sink.

The first time I did hosted Shabbat dinner for friends, it felt like a huge big deal. I was nervous about the house, the food, the everything. And then, as my disabilities became more of a challenge, I quit doing it for a while, until the idea of a potluck occurred to me. Now I look forward to these evenings, which let my students get to know one another in a way they can’t in the classroom.

Shabbat shalom uv’tei avon!  

(Peaceful Sabbath and bon appetit!)

 

Re-Dedicating the Small Sanctuary

Image:  During Chanukah 2015, the Intro class lit chanukiot together. This year I forgot to take pictures.

My house sits in a mostly Christian neighborhood, surrounded by bright Christmas decorations. I love my neighbors’ lights, and look forward to them every year. My house, though, is different: there are no Christmas decorations, only a little electric chanukiah winking in the window by the front door.

Every Chanukah I rededicate my home to be a mikdash me-at, a little sanctuary of the God of Israel.

  • Is it safe for visitors? Well-lit outside?
  • Is it safe for all: how do we speak to and treat each other here?
  • Does it look like a Jewish home? Are there things that shouldn’t be here?
  • Are people who work here compensated fairly?
  • Do I practice hacnasat orchim, hospitality to guests?
  • What can I do to make it more of a place of Torah?

Last night I had twelve students over for Shabbat dinner. It was a big celebration for me.

When I got sick last year, I cancelled such a gathering because I didn’t have the strength to do it. Since then, the thought of cleaning and cooking, then cleaning again was completely overwhelming. But two weeks ago a student asked me shyly: “Could I come see how you do Shabbat dinner sometime?” I said, “Sure!” and emailed the class.

I have rededicated my home, and my self, to hospitality. As with last night, it will need to be modest: potlucks, instead of me cooking everything. I asked for and got help with set up and clean up. Even with all the delegation, I was a mess today – but a happy mess, because the mitzvah of hospitality is dear to my heart.

As I told my guests, I hope that every one of them hosts a Shabbat dinner for friends or family sometime soon. I pointed out my less-than-stellar housekeeping and said, “If I can have people over when things are not perfect, you can too.” Hachnasat orchim (hospitality to guests) is an important way to build Jewish community, one relationship at a time.

To whom or what are you rededicating yourself this week? Chanukah is about memory, but it is also about dedicating ourselves in the here and now, meeting the challenges of being Jewish in the world.