Rabbi Bernie Fox
The Court Must Be Situated at the Gate of the City
Hashem sends two messengers to Sedom. One is charged with the duty of destroying the city. The second will save Lote – Avraham’s nephew – and his family. The pasuk comments that Lote was sitting at the gate of the city.
Rashi explains that the people of Sedom had appointed Lote to be their judge. Siftai Chachamim further explains that the wording of the pasuk substantiates Rashi’s comment. The Chumash describes Lote’s location as “the gate of Sedom.” The gate of the city is often identified in TNaCh with the court.
The identification of the court with the gate of the city is not merely a result of idiomatic usage. This relationship is expressed in halacha. Maimonides explains that the court is physically located at the gate of the city.
Why is it proper to place the court at the gate? The answer to this question involves two issues. First, we must consider the role of the courts. Maimonides explains that the obligation to establish courts is one of the seven laws commanded to all descendants of Noach. These courts must be established in every political or governmental jurisdiction. In other words, a court must be established in every place in which people live as a society. Therefore, cities require courts. A community is required to govern itself with justice. The court must be part of the fabric of the society.
Second, the location of the court demonstrates this integral relationship to the community. The significance of placement at the gate can be appreciated though consideration of another mitzvah. We are obligated to place a mezuzah upon the doorpost of our house. Through placement of the mezuzah upon the doorpost, the entire house is transformed. The mezuzah can be compared to a badge. A police officer pins a badge upon his or her shirt. But it is the officer who is wearing the badge, not the shirt. The officer wears the badge through pinning it on his shirt. In a similar manner, the mezuzah does not transform the doorpost. It transforms the entire room or house through placement upon the doorpost of the residence or room.
Similar to the mezuzah, the court transforms the city. Just as the mezuzah is integrated into the home though placement upon the doorpost, so too, the city is transformed by placing the court at its gate.
Lote Offers His Daughters to the Mob
The messengers of Hashem come to Lote in Sodom. Their mission is to rescue him and his family from the destruction of his city. Lote invites the messengers to share the hospitality of his home. The residents of Sodom soon surround Lote’s home. These residents wish to abuse Lot's guests. Lote offers to exchange his daughters for the safety of his visitors.
Nachmanides observes that Lote's behavior demonstrates an improper understanding of the obligation of hachnasat orchim — extending hospitality to guests. Our responsibility to display hospitality does not supersede our duties to our own families. Lote, however, in his fervor to fulfill his obligation of hachnasat orchim, was willing to sacrifice his own daughters.
This is an illustration of one of the basic principles of Torah life. In order to fulfill our obligation to Hashem, fervor alone is unacceptable. In Lote’s case, extreme fervor led him dangerously close to violating his duty to his own family. Overzealousness can lead to a superficial interpretation of our obligations. Even when accompanied by good intentions, such behavior is inadequate. Instead, we are expected to guide all of our actions with wisdom and understanding.
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno proposes an entirely different approach to understanding Lote’s offer. He suggests that Lote did not actually intend to sacrifice his daughters. He explains that Lote was attempting to create confusion and dissention within the mob. His daughters were already engaged. Lote expected that his offer would be accepted. This would alarm his future sons-in-law. They would turn against the mob. They would probably attract sympathetic supporters among the people. The mob would be split and turned against itself.
The Greatness of Yishmael
Yitzchak is born and begins to mature. Yishmael – the son of Avraham and Hagar – is also a member of the household. Sarah urges Avraham to send away Yishmael but Avraham resists. Hashem tells Avraham that he should follow Sarah’s advice and send Yishmael away. Hashem assures Avraham that Yishmael too will develop into a great nation.
What was the intent of this assurance? Surely, Hashem was not merely telling Avraham that Yishmael would be the progenitor of a nation with a large population! Avraham was not concerned with the number of descendants Yishmael produced. Hashem must have been alluding to some meaningful accomplishment to be attributed to Yishmael’s descendants.
Rabaynu Avraham ben HaRambam offers a fascinating interpretation of Hashem’s assurance. Before Avraham, the concept of a single indivisible Creator had been all but forgotten. Avraham was devoted to re-introducing Hashem to humanity. This mission would be continued through the Jewish nation. However, another religion would emerge and teach the concept of uncompromised monotheism. This would be Islam. This religion would develop and be promulgated through Yishmael’s descendants. In some of the Jewish nation’s lowest periods, Islam supplanted Judaism as the world’s dominant religion. As a result, when the influence of Judaism was minimal, Islam preached the monotheistic concept of G-d. This was the blessing that Hashem placed upon Yishmael.
The Test of the Akeydah
Parshat VaYerah relates the incident of the Akeydah – the binding of Yitzchak in order to be offered as a sacrifice. In this passage, Hashem commands Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son Yitzchak. The commentators regard this as the most difficult of the tests that Hashem required of Avraham. Avraham's willingness to subjugate even his love for his son to the service of Hashem was the ultimate testament of his devotion.
Beis Halevi is troubled by this characterization of the event as a test for Avraham. He points out that an even greater sacrifice was required of Yitzchak. Yitzchak, after all, was thirty-nine years old at this time, and willingly submitted himself to be sacrificed. Therefore, was not Yitzchak's demonstration of devotion even more outstanding than his father's?
Beis Halevi explains that indeed it was Avraham who faced the greater challenge. Giving up one’s own life is certainly an act of awesome devotion. However, with death the ordeal ends – there is no looking back, no haunting regrets. In contrast, Avraham was faced with the challenge of taking his son's life and then living with that decision. Avraham knew his ordeal would not end with the death of Yitzchak – the trauma of the event would remain with him for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, without hesitancy, Avraham demonstrated his willingness to fulfill Hashem's commandment.
Hashem Descends to Judge the People of Sedom
Our parasha discusses the destruction of Sedom. This pasuk introduces the narrative. Hashem tells Avraham that the cries of the people of Sedom have risen before Him. He will descend in order to judge the wickedness of the people. If these cries truly and accurately reflect the evil of the people, then He will destroy the city and the surrounding communities.
There are a number of problems presented by this pasuk. We will consider three of these difficulties. First, the pasuk describes Hashem as “descending.” Hashem is not a material being. We cannot ascribe descending or ascending to Him. It is clear that this term is used by the Torah as a metaphor. But, what does the metaphor represent? Second, the pasuk implies that Hashem conducted some sort of analysis of Sedom. There was some issue that Hashem investigated before he decided whether He would destroy the city. But, Hashem is omniscient. What further information can He have required that added to His knowledge? Finally, the pasuk seems to imply that Hashem conducted some sort of analysis in order to secure this new information. Can we identify the nature of this process of analysis? In other words, can we determine the means by which Hashem secured the additional information that was essential to His decision?
Let us begin with the first two issues. The pasuk refers to Hashem as “descending.” The same phrase is used earlier in the Chumash. The Torah describes Hashem as “descending” in order to investigate the activities of the Dor Haflagah – the generation of the Dispersion. This post-Deluge generation joined together with the goal of unifying all of humanity. They wished to build a single civilization that would encompass all humankind. Hashem “descended” to judge this generation. Based on this judgment, He intervened in their plans by bringing about the Dispersion.
Rashi explains that in both instances – in our parasha and in the narrative regarding the Dor Haflagah – the Torah’s description of Hashem “descending” is intended to communicate that He conducted an investigation. However, Rashi points out that this message cannot be understood in a literal sense. Hashem is omniscient and does not need to conduct an investigation in order to secure additional information. Instead, these references are to be understood homiletically. In both instances, the Torah is telling us that a judge should only render a decision after thoroughly investigating the particulars of the case. The Torah ascribes a process of investigation to Hashem in order to establish a standard of conduct for mortal judges. The Torah is telling us that just as Hashem only rendered a judgment based upon a full consideration of all of the elements of the case. So too are we only to pass judgment after conducting a thorough investigation.
Rashi’s interpretation is unusual. He accepts that, in general, when the Torah ascribes a material activity to Hashem, it is in a metaphor intended to describe His behavior. However, in this instance, Rashi asserts that the metaphor is not intended to describe Hashem’s behavior. Instead, the metaphor is employed in order to teach a lesson regarding our own conduct. In other words, although the Torah often uses material expressions in describing Hashem and His activities, these terms are metaphors that communicate information regarding Hashem. Here, Rashi asserts that the metaphor is not referring to an action of Hashem. In fact, the phrase is not related to Hashem in any sense. Instead, the metaphor is designed to teach us a homiletic lesson regarding the manner in which we – specifically judges – should conduct ourselves.
Why does the Torah specifically employ the metaphor of “descending?” Rashi discusses this issue. He explains that the term “descent” has a precise meaning. It refers to making a judgment based upon the ultimate outcome of a pattern of behavior. The people of Sedom were not judged solely on the basis of their behavior at the moment. They were judged based upon the ultimate outcome of these behaviors. Hashem considered the direction in which the people were progressing. He punished them because they were progressing towards absolute evil. However, Rashi does not identify the specific outcome towards which the people were progressing.
Rabbaynu David Kimchi – Radak – offers a different explanation of the metaphor of “descending.” He explains that when Hashem involves Himself in the affairs of human beings, He is descending from His exalted honor. Hashem is the Creator. He is exalted over all of His creations. When Hashem interferes with the natural universe that He created in order to save humanity or punish humankind, He is descending from His glory and majesty. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin – Netziv – expands on this explanation. He explains that Hashem created a universe governed by a natural order. It is His will that this natural order be preserved. However, He interferes with the natural order in two situations. First, He exercises His providence and interferes with this order to help the righteous. Second, He interrupts the natural order in order to punish the wicked. When we act in a manner that demands providential punishment, we are – metaphorically – requiring Hashem to “descend” from His throne of majesty to correct our behavior.
Both of these explanations present some difficulties. Rashi does answer our first two questions. He explains that Hashem’s “descent” is a metaphor. Rashi also explains the specific meaning of the metaphor. “Descent” means making a judgment on a person or group based on the ultimate outcome of a pattern of behavior, and not focusing solely upon the person or group’s current behaviors. According to Rashi, our third question regarding the specific issues that Hashem investigated and considered is not relevant. Hashem did not conduct an actual analysis. The phraseology employed by the Torah is not intended to be applied to Hashem. However, Rashi’s explanation is somewhat radical. As we have noted, it is unusual for the Torah to ascribe a material behavior to Hashem that does not have a metaphorical message regarding Hashem’s behavior. In addition, Rashi asserts that Sedom was not punished for its present behavior. Instead, the people were destroyed because they were destined to perform some great evil. Yet, Rashi does not indicate the specific nature of this evil.
Radak’s and Netziv’s explanation also answers our first two questions. Yet, they seem to leave our third question unanswered. What was the nature of the investigation performed by Hashem?
Rabaynu Ovadia Sforno offers a comprehensive explanation of the events in our parasha that resolves all three of our difficulties. He begins by adopting an element of Rashi’s explanation. Like Rashi, he asserts that the term “descending” must be understood idiomatically. When the Torah describes Hashem as descending, it is identifying a particular type of judgment. Hashem is making a judgment based upon the ultimate outcome of a pattern of behavior. But, at this juncture, Sforno extends his explanation beyond this initial observation. In each instance in which the figure of “descending” is employed, Sforno identifies the outcome that demanded Hashem’s interference. Let us focus on our parasha. What outcome demanded the destruction of the people of Sedom?
A corrupt society can reverse itself. Sforno asserts that as long as the potential for repentance exists, the society can be spared. However, there is a point at which the society can no longer reverse its direction. At some point, repentance is no longer possible. This occurs when no dissent is tolerated – when no one remains who can provide the society with a new direction. When all members of the society have accepted and champion the corrupt values of the civilization, there is not opportunity for reevaluation and repentance. If this point is reached, the society can only continue in its deterioration into absolute evil.
Hashem “descended” in order to test Sedom. He designed a test to determine whether Sedom had reached the point at which there was no longer an opportunity to repent. What was this test?
The Torah tells us that three angels came to visit Avraham. They foretold the birth of Yitzchak. After taking leave from Avraham, two of these angels proceeded to Sedom. The angles told Lote that Sedom would be destroyed. They urged him to gather his family and flee the city. Lote left with his wife and two daughters. Lote’s wife died during their flight. But, Lote and his daughters escaped the destruction of Sedom. It is clear from the Torah that these angels had two missions. They were charged with the mission of destroying Sedom, and they were sent to save Lote and his family. However, the Torah describes in detail the activities of these angels in Sedom and their interaction with the people of the city. Why is this information included in the account?
The angels came to Lote and agreed to spend the night in his home. The people of Sedom did not extend hospitality to strangers and were not willing to tolerate Lote’s offer of lodging to these visitors. They surrounded Lote’s home and demanded that he deliver his guests to them. The Torah explains that all of the people of Sedom were involved in this protest – the young and old, all of the people, from every quarter. Why does the Torah provide such a detailed description of the mob that surrounded Lote’s home?
Sforno explains that the Torah’s intent is clear. The message is that the entire population of Sedom – without exception – joined into this mob that congregated against Lote. There was no dissent. Not one opposed the mob. No one even held back from joining the mob. The opposition to Lote was unanimous and complete.
Sforno explains that this was the test. Hashem provided the people of Sedom with an opportunity to demonstrate either that they deserved to be spared, or to be destroyed. The test was simple. Would anyone rebuke this mob? Would anyone refuse to join in the attack on Lote’s home? The people of Sedom failed the test. There was no opposition to the evil designs of the people. Every person joined the mob. The people of Sedom failed the test. They lost their last opportunity to be spared. No one in Sedom was willing to oppose the evil of the citizens. No one resisted the urge to join the mob. Repentance was not longer possible. This test established that the people of Sedom were beyond repentance.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 19:1.
 Siftai Chacahmim Sefer Beresheit 19:1.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 1:3.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 9:14.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 19:8.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 19:8
 Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 21:13.
 RavYosef Dov Soloveitchik, Bais HaLeyve – Commentary on the Torah, Parshat VaYerah.
 Sefer Bereshiet 11:5
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 11:5, 18:21.
 Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 11:5.
 Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer Beresheit 11:5.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 18:21.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 18:21.