Friday, October 26, 2007

There's more

There are some parashot about which students are likely to say, “Nothing happens.”
This isn’t one of them. In a class that studies the Bible as a series of episodes, we might easily spend a month on this parashah. Among major episodes, it includes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the announcement of the birth of Isaac, the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael, and the akedah. It also contains the second of three incidents in Genesis in which a wife is passed off as a sister.

In a class that follows the model of weekly Torah study, we’d have to choose one episode.

Both the birth of Isaac and the dismissal of Hagar and Ishamel, and the akedah, are fresh in our minds because of the Rosh Hashanah readings. Aspects of these episodes are troubling and difficult to teach to children, so we might want to choose another episode.

But which? I distinctly remember learning about Sodom and Gomorrah as a child, and I remember being puzzled. What did they do that was so wrong?

This is a question that rabbis and sages have grappled with, to mixed conclusions. Although the Torah text itself gives indications of sexual deviance, Jewish tradition, following the Prophets, has tended to emphasize “inhospitality to strangers” as an indicator of pervasive moral blindness.

Even if we elect to advance a reason for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we should have second thoughts about emphasizing this episode. If our goal is to instill love of God, how prominent do we want to make an episode that results in such drastic punishment, especially if we are deliberately unclear about the offense?

Both this story and the story of the Flood have the potential for undesirable psychological consequences. We do, of course, teach the story of Noah’s ark, but the Noah story has two important differences. First, Noah is seen as righteous, even if only with respect to his own time. Second, the story ends with God’s promise not to destroy the world.

It would actually be more in line with Jewish tradition to emphasize the announcement of the birth of Isaac, but for a reason we might not think of today. Tradition cites Abraham’s reception of the three messengers as an example of perfect hospitality (with which Lot’s reception in Sodom contrasts).

It draws further lessons of derekh eretz from the messengers’ care to ask about Sarah and, later, from God’s behavior. Sarah attributes her laughter (the source of the name Yitzchak) to the idea that Abraham is too old to father a child, but in relaying this to Abraham, God says that Sarah thought that she herself was too old, in order not to hurt Abraham’s feelings.

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