The Characteristic of Sodom
By Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Parashat Vayera 2018
The Characteristic of Sodom
The following story is entirely based on the sacred texts of our tradition: Torah and Midrash.
A pale sun hung low in the sky, casting long shadows on the proud edifices and statues framing the Central Square, etching forbidding lines into the pale, sleek marble, muting its gold detail. It was Spring, but with the waning of the day, a biting chill returned. Lot wrapped his grey coat tighter around him, plunging his left hand deeper into his coat pocket, while the fingers of his right hand nervously tracked his phone screen. He read the headlines and glanced around him. Tall, imposing screens mounted on the faces of the buildings blared out the news.
There was no shortage of opinions in this town, he grimly thought, each and every single one of them more horrific than the last. The media; broadcast, print, internet – it didn’t matter – glorified lies and cruelties. All propaganda from the City States. Lies about the economy. Lies about the surrounding cities. Lies about how the City States were threatened, about to be overrun. They will take our jobs, the headlines blared, they are criminals.
They must be stopped, turned away. We must exact payment, it is only right. Cruelties enacted in the name of the Law – always the Law, of course – that administered Sodomite ‘justice’ swiftly.
Lot knew. He had seen it countless times. If you were from somewhere else or fell on hard times, forget about it. If you were wounded, sick or homeless, don’t even bother. If you gathered to protest, well, you had it coming. The Four Courts, each located on the four corners of the Central Square, were impeccable in their reasoning, unrelenting in their administration and masterfully efficient in their execution. If a starving person collapsed, they were not fed for, they weren’t tended to or taken to hospital, but … well, they were never seen again, that’s for sure.
Lot scanned the headlines on his phone. One more outrageous than the last, he knew he didn’t believe much. Why did I ever come to this godforsaken place, he wondered. He should have stayed with Abraham, but they had both grown prosperous and the Plain of Zoar was so lush, as lush as the Garden of Eden itself, it was rumored. It seemed so easy. An easy life. Easy money. Easy success. He had the business acumen after all, and after breaking into the insular community of Sodom, he swiftly rose in its ranks.
He missed Abraham and Sarah, his aunt and uncle, and their strange, remarkable mission. He remembered living with them in Charan, where Abraham and Sarah, though childless, had helped him find peace and purpose.
As his aunt and uncle grew their community, he saw the power and magnetism of their message. Love each other. Care for each other. Welcome the stranger. Think critically, seek truth. One human family. One God.
He now knew he had taken those truths for granted, coasted on them half-heartedly, even if they had percolated into his own family life, in small but radical ways.
His daughter Plotit had tried to do the right thing, in the spirit of her great uncle and aunt. She had surreptitiously given a fast food meal to a hungry beggar. The surveillance cameras knew. The police followed quickly. Her public execution – the following day as soon as the rays of the rising sun brushed against the foot of the tallest idol on the Central Square. He was still mourning her, wondering how he ever could create space for her in his heart, a shrine to her memory.
The Central Square was busy, as people were finishing up their commute. Lot lifted his eyes from his phone and scanned the perimeter of the square; the buildings, tall as mountains and equally forbidding, the idols, grotesque, morbid, clad in gold, studded with gems. The gods of Sodom were capricious, as the idols seemed to extend their gilded hands to the beggars at their feet. To give or to take?
The denizens of Sodom would approach the wretches and give them cash; wads of bills, marked with each person’s name. He had seen this spectacle, almost a religious rite, time after time. The destitute, elated and hopeful that they could buy food or lodging or the comforts that all those of the human family crave, would go from store to store, hotel to hotel, with their ample cash. Yet each would be turned away and eventually starve at the base of the idol, crumpled in despair. It was before they drew their last breath that the Sodomites would come and snatch back their marked monies, for sport.
Lot’s eyes darted across the friendless masses. He tried to remember his charge. Abraham told him that the Cities were full of sin. Remember Noah? His uncle had said. Noah meant well but he was so passive. He… he just sat there, whittling away the years on building his ark. Uncle had wrapped his arm around Lot’s shoulders. We can do better, kid. We can go to Sodom and save them. We don’t need to sit by and let the world go to hell in a hand basket.
We can go to Sodom and save them. Lot repeated the line to himself, absentmindedly, almost like a mantra. All he needed to do was find some travellers. Someone for him to extend hospitality to; someone to shield from the cold. Just one small act. One redemptive move. Would his uncle’s God be with him, he wondered.
This strange unseen God Who sees. The imageless God in Whose image all are made. In this forsaken place, that God seemed very far away.
He had heard the reports in the media and didn’t know what to believe. The big one is going to hit, the shopkeeper on the corner of the subway station had said, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Lot had walked out of the shop, knowing. All the wealth and tech couldn’t avert what would come. The earthquakes, the tsunamis, the volcanic eruptions, the nuclear winter that would follow. Will it be through ice or fire, he wondered.
He was about to turn away, when he saw them. They too were wearing the drab charcoals, navies and earthen tones that were the unofficial uniform of Sodom, but there was something that set them apart. Their bearing, perhaps? Their charisma? Their… glow? They were of middling height and build, with nondescript features but their postures were regal and determined yet compassionate and receptive.
He slipped through the crowd and rested his hand upon the first one’s shoulder. Gentlemen, you’re from out of town. Yes, yes, they said, we are.
Lot could imagine how his wife would feel. His wife didn’t like changes or surprises; a pervasive sadness had settled over her ever since they left Charan. She would dwell in the past a great deal; reminisce over the golden days when their families had been complete; their hearts had been whole, their mission had been clear. And when their beloved Plotit…
He knew he would burden her. She would look at him sadly, worriedly and then tell the wayfarers to rest of course, she would offer them a hot bath and a nourishing meal and she would wring her hands. They were wealthy and respected, it was true, but everyone was precarious in Sodom, especially the foreign-born.
But he must, mustn’t he? The family of Abraham and Sarah had been charged to be a blessing to the world, to pursue justice and righteousness. These were not abstractions; they were found in the small, subversive kindnesses that made the presence of the Unseen God felt. He felt his chest tighten. He knew what was at stake. He knew the oppressive violence of the State, the callousness of the people brushing past him, their faces vacant, eyes averted. He knew that he was endangering his daughters and sons, his daughters-in-law and sons-in-law, and the little ones too, of course. He knew.
He formed the words in his heart first. An act of resistance as well as worship. They were barely a whisper. Gentlemen, he said. Please come home.