In what must be one of the greatest transitional scenes in the entire
Biblical narrative, this week the Torah transposes us from the gracious
home of Avraham in one scene and to the evil city of S'dom in the next.
Avraham's home was one of kindness. It was a home where the master of the
house would run to greet nomadic wanderers, and invite them into his abode
only three days after a bris milah! It was a home in which Sora had opened
a door in every direction, ensuring that there was an unrestricted
invitation to any wayfarer, no matter which direction he or she came from.
The scene switches to S'dom, a city in which kindness and charity were
unheard of. A city in which a damsel who committed the terrible crime of
feeding a pauper, was smeared with honey and set out for the bees. Sdom
was a city where visitors who had the audacity to ask for overnight lodging
were treated to a special type of hospitality. They were placed in beds,
and then, if they were too short for the beds, their limbs were tortuously
stretched to fit the bed; if they were larger than the beds their limbs
were chopped off.
How does the Torah make the transition from the world of kindness and
charity to the world of evil? The Parsha tells us the story of three angels
who visited Avraham. Each had a mission. Rashi tells us, "one to announce
to Sarah the birth of a son, one to overthrow Sodom, and one to cure
Abraham." You see, three were needed as one angel does not carry out two
commissions. "Raphael," explains Rashi, "who healed Abraham went on to
rescue Lot, as healing and saving may be one mission." And so the scene
moves from Avraham in Eilonai Mamrei to Lot in S'dom, where the angels
posing again as wayfarers were graciously invited. They saved the
hospitable Lot and destroyed the rest of the city.
I have a simple question. Why did the angel who was sent to destroy S'dom
make a stop at Avraham's home? Two angels could have gone to Avraham's
home, one to heal Avraham and the other to inform Sora of the good
news. The third could have gone directly to S'dom and waited there for the
others to catch up. Why make a detour to Avraham?
Traditionally, young children who start learning Talmud, are introduced to
Tractate Bava Metzia in general and the chapter Eilu M'tziyos in
particular. The tractate deals with property law and emphasizes respect
for other people's possessions. Eilu M'tziyos stresses the laws of
returning lost items and the responsibilities of a finder of those
objects. Some wanted the boys to learn about the blessings, but Rav Moshe
Feinstein insisted that the custom not be changed. He wanted to imbue the
youngsters of the enormous responsibilities that they have to their fellow
man. One cannot be a Jew only in shul where he can sway, pray, and recite
blessings, but one must also be also be a Jew in the outside world, where
the tests of honesty arise each day.
I heard the story of one of those youngsters, who found his way off the
beaten yeshiva path. His college-years search for spirituality found him
studying with a yogi in Bombay, India who railed against Western comforts
and derided the culture of materialism. He preached peace, love, and
harmony while decrying selfishness and greed. The young man was enamored
with his master's vociferous objections to Western society, until he was
together with him on a Bombay street. A wallet lay on the ground. There
was cash and credit cards sticking out from it. It was clearly owned by an
American tourist. The Yogi picked it up and put it in his sarong.
"But it may belong to someone," protested his young charge. "It is a gift
from the gods," he answered, "heaven meant it for us . . . ." The young
man's protests fell on deaf ears.
At that moment, the words of his Rabbi back in fifth grade rang in his
ears. "These are the items that must be announced for return; any item with
an identifying sign . . . ."
He was stirred by truth of his traditions, and the purity of his past. He
left the Yogi and the wallet, and eventually returned to a Torah life.
It is easy to rail against others. It is easy to talk about loose morals
and unethical behavior. It's even easy to destroy Sdom. But Hashem did
not let the angels do just that. He told them all to them first visit
Avraham. He wanted them to see what kindness really means. See an old man
run to greet total strangers. See a 90-year-old woman knead dough to bake
you fresh bread. Meet the man who will plead for mercy on behalf of
S'dom. And then, and only then can you mete the punishment that they truly
deserve. Because without studying the good, we cannot understand the true
flaws of the bad. Without watching Abraham commit true kindness, we should
not watch the inhabitants of Sdom get their due.