By: Deborah Abecassis Warshawsky
My husband grew up going camping with his family every summer. I did not. We went to Acadia National Park one summer – our second summer married, when I was still a good sport – and spent a few days in a tent. Two things stick out in my mind: my husband did most of the planning and cooking, and I had to insert quarters into a meter in order to keep the water running in the shower. The first is a definite positive, but the second more than negates it. I tried it. I did it. I’m over it.
At my brother’s house the other night, my husband was grumbling about how he would love to take our girls camping. To be clear, I never said he couldn’t take them; only that I didn’t want to go too – and I’d feel better if he went with another adult. (In the meantime, I can think of many ways to occupy myself while the four of them commune with nature).
My youngest wandered into the room at that point, and my husband asked her, “Would you go camping with me?” “Why?” she answered immediately – a perfect expression of her inquisitive innocence, ambiguous as to whether she meant, “why are you asking,” or “why would I want to?” And as usual, she had the room in stitches.
The older two came in next and my husband repeated the question. My middle daughter wouldn’t commit – it depends who else is going, where they would camp, what they would sleep in, what food would they eat, how buggy it could be, what could she be missing out on at home? She is both practical and intuitive. She could sense the question about camping was more than just a question about camping and she would hold off answering until she had acquired all the necessary information and its implications.
Finally, my eldest daughter was intrigued and willing but cautious. Would mommy come with us? Will there be spiders? She would probably enjoy camping the most of the three of them, but, generally, is apprehensive towards new experiences.
I was struck by how a simple question not only elicited three different answers, but how their answers so perfectly reflected the differences in their personalities. Is it not fascinating how three children born to the same parents and raised in the same house can be so unique? And is not the individuality of each one the real blessing of the family unit? We think, as new parents, that our children will be exactly like us. But as we grow along with them, we learn that their individuality, their unique personalities, are what enrich our lives and teach us our most profound life lessons. Life is more meaningful when we are not all the same.
In this week’s parashah, God decides to let Abraham know that He is planning on destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. The text shows us that God arrived at this decision because He is in partnership with Abraham “who commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of the Lord, doing charity and justice, in order that the Lord might bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him.” Rash explains that God is showing Abraham the respect and consideration you extend to a loved one, especially, when you are about to do something negative – “shall I destroy the children and not inform the father who is someone who loves Me?”
Abraham, upon hearing that God will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, challenges Him. “Will you even obliterate righteous with wicked?” He argues that if there are fifty righteous people in the city, “it would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon righteous with wicked; so the righteous will be like the wicked. It would be sacrilege to You! Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?” As God agrees to save the city if there are fifty righteous people in it, Abraham, continues to negotiate to 40 and 30 and 20 and finally, 10, when God concedes, “I will not destroy on account of the ten.
In this exchange between God and Abraham, the Torah teaches us the concept of righteous judgement. The text shows us that God expects that Abraham will show his descendants how to follow the way of God and to do “charity and justice;” in return, God consults Abraham on His plan, and Abraham demands that God be held to the same standards of justice. He cannot use His power to ignore those individuals who are doing the right thing, who are not evil, and lump everyone together for the same fate. Righteous judgement means acknowledging and affirming the positive contribution of the individual to the group.
When God concedes that if there are fifty righteous individuals, He will not destroy Sodom, He says, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the places for their sakes.” Ibn Ezra understands from the repetition of “in Sodom,” and “within the city,” that if the place is to be saved these righteous people must “fear the Lord in public.” We learn from the emphasis that it is not enough to do the right thing only in the privacy of your own home, but that in order to save the city (and not just oneself), the individual must model his/her righteous ways in a place that can exert influence on others. There is no value in the individual who is hidden away where no one can experience his/her uniqueness, and possibly enrich one’s life from it.
When God decides to reveal to Abraham His plan to destroy the city of Sodom, the Torah refers to the “outcry” from the city, and the word translates literally as “with her outcry.” From the feminine form in the word’s usage, the rabbis explained that there was an individual woman who defied the proclamation of the city of Sodom forbidding anyone from helping the poor or needy; she hid provisions in her water jug in order to sustain a poor man in the street. She was discovered and burned to death.
The rabbis believed that God’s decision to destroy the city of Sodom was a direct result of the death of this one woman and that every individual and every single deed makes a contribution to the world, with positive or negative consequences. Nechama Leibowitz (p. 174-175) writes:
“Just as each individual is endowed with his own unique personality and has no exact counterpart, so every deed committed in the world makes its own particular contribution, positive or negative, to the general welfare, ultimately affecting the whole of mankind.”
The rabbis also teach us that the gravity in Sodom’s sin was that their wickedness had become the social norm and was mandated by the laws of the city. In other words, the perpetrators of the sins were not ashamed of their behaviour, doing their evil in secret. Rather they had made “good deeds” illegal and punished those who did not join in their sinful behaviour.
God trusted that the unique character of one man – Abraham – would show generations of his descendants the right path. That same individual man reminded God that positions of power do not afford one permission to destroy the good with the bad. Moreover, individuals and their deeds had the potential to influence the future survival of an entire city. And most significantly, the merit of these individuals was in the visibility and accessibility of their uniqueness; hidden from public view, their righteousness would not save a city of sinners.
Diversity in our families and in the world teaches us tolerance and acceptance. Differences in personalities, in appearances, and in practices are opportunities for educating about judgements, prejudices, respect and compassion. From our children, these same variances are sources of wonder and humour; they test our patience and reflect back to us our own biases and weaknesses. Differences enrich our lives and embellish our family mosaic, and each individual has the potential to add depth, meaning and value to our lives, if we allow them access.
Discussion Questions for the Shabbat Table:
- Why did Abraham argue with God when God said He was going to destroy all of Sodom?
- Why should a few righteous people be enough to save a city of evil people?
- Why is it important not to judge everyone the same way?
- What do we learn from from people who do things differently than us?
- How are the members of your family different from each other? How are your friends different from each other?
- Would you want everyone to be the same? Why? Why not?