Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
How does conflicted man behave? How does he justify his sin? As Rabbi Israel Chait taught, Torah differs from other philosophies by presenting role models, not by merely identifying abstract truths. We might apply this also to models of sinners. Role models surpass abstract principles, as we are more impacted by peoples’ practices: their concrete actions with which we identify. Identification is a great tool to motivate us as our psychological faculties include a self-image, and we create an acceptable self-image when we copy those whom we admire. Seeing role models in action offers us a most clear personality to copy. Human examples improve us, steering us away from evil and towards goodness, far better than what dry, abstract principles merely describe in text.
The story of Lot and the angels is one such role model presentation. The deeper psychological phenomena and dynamics are cloaked in God’s scripted story, with very subtle clues, the details of which teach many nuances of human nature. The purpose of concealing psychological principles is because human emotions and psychological faculties are not tangible or observable, and many individuals reject what is not observable. They are not on the level to accept such truths, so God hides the lessons for those who can appreciate psychology and philosophical perfection, and know how to decipher Torah. Let’s review this startling Torah story:
The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them and, bowing low with his face to the ground, he said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night, and bathe your feet; then you may be on your way early.” But they said, “No, we will spend the night in the square.” But he pressed them strongly, so they turned his way and entered his house. He prepared a feast for them and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. They had not yet lain down, when the townspeople, the men of Sodom, young and old—all the people from everywhere—gathered about the house. And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.” So Lot went out to them to the entrance, shut the door behind him, and said, “I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they said, “Come here,” and one said, “You came here to dwell, and will you now judge [us]? Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” And they pressed hard against the person of Lot, and moved forward to break the door. But the angels stretched out their hands and pulled Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And the people who were at the entrance of the house, young and old, they struck with blindness, so that they were helpless to find the entrance. (Gen. 19:1-11)
Maimonides teaches: “We have already shown that the appearance or speech of an angel mentioned in scripture took place in a vision or dream” (Guide, book II, chap. xli). Following Maimonides’ understanding that Torah stories including angels must be understood in a non-literal sense [angels are not physical], I suggest below in this essay the following interpretation. Support for Maimonides’ view is found in the following implications:
• Lot offers his daughters’ for sexual pleasure—to an entire city—while sheltering complete strangers. This is extremely peculiar, that greater mercy is expressed for strangers than for one’s daughters, whom the father treats cruelly as harlots.
• The practically impossible sudden gathering of literally all Sodomites—from “youths to elders”—from “all corners of Sodom” is not credible, if literal. News does not spread that fast, nor do all society’s members act identically.
• The Sodomite’s relentless search for Lot’s door…even after they were blinded.
• The very phenomenon of blinding the Sodomites.
• The angels’ initial rejection of Lot’s hospitality, when they were in fact in Sodom to save him, is contrary to their goal.
As Torah is written with complete precision and no redundancy, where many details share many lessons, we wonder about the focus 11 times on Lot’s “house,” “door,” “roof,” and “entrance.” Of what instruction are these details about Lot’s home? And this verse captures our attention: “You came here to dwell, and will you now judge us? Now we will deal worse with you than with them.”
The Metaphor: Lot’s Personality
This event is a metaphor. Of course, Lot was literally saved and Sodom was destroyed, as stated later: “Thus it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the plain and annihilated the cities where Lot dwelt, God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval” (Gen. 19:29). However, this highly detailed account of the angels, the Sodomites, and Lot and his “home” are unnecessary, if we are only meant to learn of Lot’s salvation and Sodom’s destruction. What then do all these details teach?
This entire metaphor depicts Lot’s personality. God is once again instructing mankind on how the psyche operates, to guard from poor qualities and cleave to righteousness. Let’s decipher the verses one by one:
But they said, “No, we will spend the night in the square.” But he pressed them strongly, so they turned his way and entered his house
Lot must coerce the angels to enter his home means that Lot must “force” proper morality upon himself. The angels’ reluctance to enter Lot’s home refers to Lot’s reluctance to incorporate complete justice into his life. Lot chose to live in Sodom, a corrupt society bent on extreme promiscuity; he was attracted to immorality. Nonetheless, Lot followed some morality: he provided hospitality. Why? This was due to his conflict: he craved lusts but learned morality and kindness from Abraham. Lot was conflicted. Lot’s solution was to assuage his guilt by performing some token act of kindness [towards these angels]. Support for Lot’s resistance to act with full kindness was his meager “feast” (only dry matzos) served to the angels, while Abraham served the angels a lavish feast of meat, milk and cake, not meager matzos.
They had not yet lain down, when the townspeople, the men of Sodom, young and old—all the people from everywhere—gathered about the house. And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.”
Suddenly after the angels entered—“They had not yet lain down”—the mob descended upon Lot’s house—every citizen. As mentioned, it is impossible that the news spread immediately, and that “all” Sodomites arrived. But metaphorically speaking, this means that as soon as Lot performed some proper act of hospitality, his corrupt emotions (represented by the Sodomites) immediately conflicted with his token act of morality.
So Lot went out to them to the entrance, shut the door behind him.
Why must we read 11 times about the “house,” “entrance,” and that he closed the “door”? Here is the key. This refers to Lot’s dichotomy. His guilt demanded that he retain some good self-image, and “closing the door” means this: Lot wished to compartmentalize his small measure of morality, to preserve an acceptable self-image. This required a “safe compartment” in his mind (his home in this metaphor) that he kept off-limits to immorality. Lot felt justified in retaining his lewd character, through some just token act (hosting the men), thereby retaining an acceptable self-image. He could even tolerate a separate act of giving his daughters to the Sodomites for heterosexuality, but he would not cross the line of homosexuality with those angels, which secured for him a sense of justice. This explains Lot’s words, “But do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.” In this metaphor, Lot’s home represents a part of himself which he required to remain untainted, so as to view himself in some favorable light.
God refers to Lot’s home 11 times! That’s excessive, unless God wishes to emphasize the significance of this psychological phenomenon: Lot’s home represents a “place” in his mind…a degree of abstinence from sin, through which he justifies all his other lusts. The conflicted man will dichotomize his values and actions to preserve his self-image. Every person musty feel he acts correctly. Lot “forces” good angels into his home, but prevents entrance by sinners into this compartment of his behavior. In other words, Lot forces some morality into his life. The numerous instances of Lot’s home intend to call our attention to the core of the metaphor: a “moral compartment of his character.” That compartment is Lot’s self-image. Lot’s “home” is the compartment of himself engaging in a just morality.
Lot offering his daughters to the Sodomites displays his corrupt dichotomy, his absurd sense of justice…as the following conveys…
Lot said, “I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.” The Sodomites replied: “You came here to dwell, and will you now judge [us]? Now we will deal worse with you than with them.”
Torah identifies Lot’s dichotomy and teaches a primary lesson: indecision corrupts. Lot moves to Sodom, yet he tells the Sodomites to restrain their sin, thereby Lot straddles both sides of the fence: he has not chosen any one lifestyle. A person who cannot choose is more susceptible to corruption, as he has no firm grip on any philosophy. His mind is incapacitated. This uncommitted mind state allows him to accept any corrupt act, for his choices are not rooted in any opinion:
You came here to dwell [you value lusts], and will you now judge us [you also value righteousness]? Now we will deal worse with you than with them”.
This is Torah’s method of communicating Lot’s precise flaw, and danger. Similarly we read:
Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if it is Baal…follow him!” But the people answered him not a word (I Kings 18:21).
Elijah criticized the Jews for this same error, and the people could not respond: their minds were disengaged. Astonishingly, Elijah said that following Baal alone would be preferable to following it together with following God. How so? He meant that at least when following Baal alone, one has made a decision, even though it is wrong. Choosing wrongly is preferable to no choice at all, for at least the mind is engaged, and then can be taught its error. But a disengaged mind cannot learn. So too regarding Lot: “You came here to dwell, and will you now judge [us]? Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Lot’s conflicting views rendered him susceptible to great harm.
Rabbi Israel Chait said as follows:
A psychologist once said that when analyzing a person, all parts of the personality must be scrutinized. He gave the following analogy: If the police said they would patrol all places except for one town, surely all the criminals would relocate to that unpatroled town. The same is true with the human personality. If all but one part of the psyche is scrutinized, that one area is where one will vent all his emotions. (Pirkei Avos, chap. 4, pg 237)
Certainly, as only one part of Lot’s mind was scrutinized, all other emotional areas sought satisfaction, expressed by “The townspeople, the men of Sodom, young and old—all the people from everywhere—gathered about the house.” This is a metaphor for all of Lot’s other emotions—“young and old—all the people from everywhere”—which threatened him as he justified himself in one area. When we feel we are righteous with one act, we feel we need not scrutinize any other aspect of our personalities. This gives reign to all the remaining emotions. The Crusades and Nazis could perpetrate so much evil because they justified their religion and warped morality.
Now we will deal worse with you than with them.
Lot justified the rest of his lusts due to acting properly in one area; his overall self-image was thereby validated by offering hospitality. Now his remaining emotions would deal worse with him: “And they pressed hard against the person of Lot, and moved forward to break the door.” Notice the identical word: Lot initially “pressed” (vayiftzar) the angels, and then the Sodomites (Lot’s other lusts) “pressed” (vayiftzaru) Lot. Meaning, that Lot had to force morality upon himself (morality towards angels), this revealed his lustful leanings: his emotions (Sodomites) bearing down on him to the point that he would become fully corrupted. His instincts were about to “break through the door,” to obliterate that small amount of good Lot attempted to keep preserved in his heart, “behind the door.” That Lot required force to show hospitality means that his nature strongly opposed it, and flowed towards lusts. The same word is used as Torah describes 2 reactions from the same lustful urges.
But the angels stretched out their hands and pulled Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And the people who were at the entrance of the house, young and old, they struck with blindness, so that they were helpless to find the entrance.
The angels referring to absolute justice, cannot coexist with immorality, so they stretched their hands alone “outside” the door. But they did not intermingle in the same area as the Sodomites (good and evil do not coexist). God saved Lot, expressed as the angels saving him. Lot could not save himself. Perhaps Lot’s salvation was not so much due to his level, but due to a stain on Abraham’s reputation. Had Abraham’s nephew Lot been destroyed, this would tarnish Abraham’s identity and success at spreading monotheism. Thus, we read “Thus it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the plain and annihilated the cities where Lot dwelt, God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval” (Gen. 19:29).
That the Sodomites still sought to enter Lot’s home after being stricken with blindness further supports this story as being a metaphor.
This story shares a lesson in psychology: how conflicted man attempts to engage in immorality while retaining some compartment in his mind of a morally-correct self-image. But such a compromise eventually fails. “God appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am El Shaddai, walk in My ways and be complete’” (Gen. 17:1). Following God requires “completeness”; partial Torah adherence (Lot) indicates a corruption and leads to failure. It is also notable that this verse (Gen. 17:1) refers to God’s command to Abram of circumcision, a moderation of the sexual drive, in contrast to Lot’s philosophy of indulging it.
This Torah story leaves us with a deeper appreciation for God, as He shares such detailed psychological knowledge with mankind. Torah means “guide,” and to guide us towards perfection, God offers us guidance not only in intellectual matters, but also in studying and managing our emotions through human examples.