July 25, 2009
4 Av 5769
The Shabbat preceding Tisha b\’Av, the fast on which we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, is marked with the reading of the first chapter of Isaiah for its haftarah. This chapter offers little to no solace. It is filled almost entirely with rebuke and chastisement, remark following remark, a cascade of painful reflections on the illnesses which ate away at the soul and flesh of the nation\’s body politic. No comparison could have been more biting than comparing the nation to the biblical paradigm of depravity – the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah: \”Hear the word of the Lord, you chieftains of Sodom; Give ear to our God\’s instruction, you folk of Gomorrah!\” (verse 10)
What are we to make of Isaiah\’s association between the generation of the First Destruction and the sins of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? In the popular mindset, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were often associated with sexual depravity and licentiousness. This is not the association the sages most often associate with the reason for its destruction of these cites. Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provence) captures the rabbinic mindset in his explanation of the verse from Isaiah: \”For the chieftains of the people were similar to the chieftains of Sodom and Gomorrah, in cheating the poor and in perverting justice. And the people were similar to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in their evil deeds.\” The crimes that caused God to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah were economic and legal. The nation had failed to create a just and fair society. No one was concerned that there were people who were hungry or were forced to live in the street or had no work while others lived in opulence. Those who were not wanting insured that the system guaranteed the perpetuation of this norm. Kimche sensed that these were the same sins which afflicted the nation at the time of the destruction of the First Temple.
Isaiah could not abide this situation; nor could the sages who sought to combat this same mentality in their own times using a didactic stories about the events in Sodom to try to change the attitude of those who found this norm acceptable. Here is an example: \”Rabbi Judah said: They issued a proclamation in Sodom, saying, \”Everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor and the needy with a loaf of bread shall be burnt by fire!\” Pelotit the daughter of Lot was wedded to one of the wealthy men of Sodom. She saw a certain very poor man in the street of the city and her soul was grieved on the account. What did she do? Every day when she went out to draw water, she put in her pitcher all kinds of provisions from her house and she sustained that poor man. The men of Sodom said: \”How does this poor man live?\” When they ascertained the facts they brought her forth to be burnt by fire. She said: God of the world! Maintain my right and my cause at the hands of the men of Sodom! And her cry ascended before the throne of glory. In that hour the Holy One Blessed be He said: \”I will go down and see whether they have done altogether according to her cry which is come unto me\” and if the men of Sodom have done according to the cry of the young woman, I will turn her foundation upwards and the surface downward. (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 25)
It is through this sort of prism that the sages weighed the tragedies which befell the Jewish people on Tisha b\’Av. They, like Isaiah, intuited that the only cure for the ills that befell the Jewish people on this tragic day were in the building of a just and fair society where a parody like this little rabbinic anecdote would no longer contain an element of truth.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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