Stay Away from Sodom
November 8, 2019
By Ezra N. Rich

Parshat Lech Lechah highlights the roles faith, family and community can have in our lives. Beginning with God commanding Avraham Avinu (Abraham) to uproot his life and move to a new land, the Torah tells us that he left with his wife, Sara, and his nephew Lot, as well as their support staff (Gen. 12:5). They were following God’s relocation order, one that had its twists and turns.

After a detour in Egypt due to a famine, they return to Canaan with great wealth. However, as the Torah points out, rather than leverage it to make a deposit on a Pierce-Arrow, the Torah points out that Avraham returned to where he had initially camped out (13:3-4). According to Rashi, either Avraham had stayed there on his way down to Egypt and returned because proper conduct is to be a loyal customer (at least regarding lodging), or to repay his debt from when went down to Egypt. He then went back to the alter in Beit El, which he previously established, to thank God. Avraham didn’t forget those who helped him along the way or his blessings from God.

In contrast, Lot also returns to Canaan, yet, rather than paying homage to God or living a life of means with integrity, his shepherds graze on the land of others (13:7) and cause family strife. Avraham confronts him and they separate. Lot then moves closer to Sodom, a place inhabited by wicked and sinful people (13:13).

Why was Sodom given such a scathing assessment? They weren’t merely morally bankrupt; their law enforcement was evil. According to the Midrash, Sodom codified evil behavior, such as making the giving of charity a crime punishable by death. Rather than embrace the concept of tzedakah (charity) and help those less fortunate, they made the act of helping others a capital offense. This approach is later critiqued in the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 5:14) in a discussion of character traits. “What is mine is mine and yours is yours is an average person. Some say this is the trait of Sodom.” We need to seek opportunities to enhance those in need, not ignore them. As Elie Wiesel, Z”L, noted, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference… And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”

Later in the parshah, we see Avraham’s principled reaction when the King of Sodom tries to broker a deal with him. “I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap from of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made [Avraham] rich.’” (14:23) A life of integrity is critical. Moral clarity is a necessity.

Perhaps befitting the trailblazing Father of Monotheism, Avraham had a challenging life. According to our tradition, God tested him 10 times over his lifetime. He passed them all, but it was not a walk in Delaware Park. We too face challenges throughout the stages of our lives. They can be internal ones regarding where we belong, be it in a spiritual, familial, social, professional or geographic sense. As with his nephew Lot, we may have friends or family who make poor choices, ones that as we’ll see in next week’s parshah, can have disastrous consequences.

Fortunately for Jewish Buffalo, we live in the City of Good Neighbors, a caring community with resources to help those in need. From the Hebrew Benevolent Loan Association and Jewish Family Service to our other Federation agencies and shuls (synagogues), we detest a Sodomite view of the world. While some of us may have more than others, we can all aspire to emulate the warm hospitality, gratitude and gravitas that made Avraham Avinu our Founding Father. Shabbat Shalom.

Ezra N. Rich experienced his own form of “Lech Lechah” in 2017 when he and his family moved to Buffalo from the New York City area for his wife, Rabbi Sara Rich, to lead Hillel of Buffalo. They and their three daughters have since embraced the Queen City and its warm Jewish community.  Ezra is a new member of the Federation’s Board of Governors and begins his tenure in January.

Stay Away from Sodom - Jewish thought of the week graphic