“‘What were the sins of Sodom?
One that passed over a bridge was made to pay four zuz, and one that waded through the water was made to pay eight zuz.
One time a clothes washer came for judgment. The tollkeepers said 'pay four zuz.' He replied 'But I passed through the water'. They replied, 'If so, give us eight.' He did not pay, so they wounded him. He came before the judges. They said, pay the tollkeepers: both for the bloodletting, and eight zuz for passing by water.
Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, came to Sodom. There he met a man who hit him in the head with a rock, and Eliezer bled. The attacker dragged Eliezer to the judges of Sodom, complaining that the man had done Eliezer a service by providing him with a bloodletting. Eliezer picked up a rock and wounded the judge. Eliezer said 'My payment is there in your hand: pay the man in place of me.'”
This is just the first of a long series of stories in Bereshit Rabbah, a 3rd and 4th century Midrashic collection, of the sins of the city of Sodom, a subject of our torah portion today. But less than the place of our story, this year, I am most interested in one of main characters of our story for parshat vayera, and that is Lot. Mostly, my interest in Lot is in the strange inconsistent nature of his character, and his story. It’s filled with questions - and the main question is, is Lot good? Or bad?
We meet him in parshat Noach, learning that he is Abram’s deceased brother Haran’s son. When Abram and Sarai depart the town of Haran for Canaan, Lot goes with them - raising a first question.
- Why? Why does he leave Haran for Canaan with Abraham. Abram’s brother Nahor stayed back in Haran - why doesn’t Lot stay with him? And if he’s going because he wants to be part of the Jewish people, or he sees the spiritual potential of this calling that Abraham is answering, doesn’t that make him a good guy?
- Is Lot going to Sodom because it is a place of sin? Meaning - is he a bad guy?
In our next parasha of Vayera, God tells Abraham of the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham, rather than exclaim ‘but my nephew is down there!’ tries to bargain with God over the possibility that there may be some righteous folks mixed amongst the wicked.
- This brings us to a third question - are we to presume that Abraham thinks Lot is one of the righteous mixed in with the wicked, and if so, what makes Abraham think that? I think that implication is there - which means, once again, wait, is Lot a good guy? Did he go to a wicked place specifically TO BE the good amidst the evil? Is he like a baptist preacher in a seedy bar - trying to save souls, Or a baptist preacher in a seedy bar - making really questionable life choices?
- Our fourth question is - wait, why didn’t Abraham open his debate against God with ‘hey you can’t blow up Sodom my nephew lives there!’ And a related question - when God says ‘I’m going to destroy the city’, why doesn’t Abraham reply, ‘ok but give me a minute to go down there and rescue my nephew.’ Instead, Abraham says nothing, and God sends two angels.
- This leads to our fifth question, which I will simply state as ‘Lot, what are you doing?’ And of course, we are also left to conclude, once again, that Lot is a bad guy.
- Thus our sixth question: why would God bother to save Lot if not because he is the one righteous man in Sodom? A parenthetical question - were his wife and daughters righteous as well? And thus we have pinged backwards again - Lot is good, I guess.
Taking the entire arc of Lot’s life into view, we have a hard time trying to understand who this person is. Our commentators, from midrashic to medieval to modern, all weigh in to answer some of these questions. Our first source for answers, of course, is Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, a French rabbi of the 11th and 12th century. Rashi does what he always does with non-protagonist characters in the Bible - he decides Abraham is good, and therefore Lot must be bad. Rashi comments on one verse in the midst of the Sodom story “Lot participated in their evil ways, and only for the sake of Abraham was he saved.” In noting that Lot is found sitting in the city gate, Rashi tells us “because he was a judge there.” Now, Rashi knows all of the midrashim of the judges of Sodom - he knows they’re basically the corrupt and evil leadership of a morally bankrupt city. When he says “he was a judge”, what Rashi means is - this guy isn’t just bad, he’s one of the ringleaders of a totally morally corrupt society. He’s the worst of the worst.
Modern commentator Nahum Sarna also seems to have disdain for Lot. Regarding his rescue, Sarna comments “Lot’s deliverance is an act of divine grace undeserved by any merit on his part, as verse 29 states - God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval.” He equivocates a bit though, saying, “Perhaps his hospitality to strangers was a contributory factor.” On Lot’s sitting at the gate, and in a verse in which he is referred to as a ger, sojourner, Sarna thinks this means the opposite of what Rashi says - he’s not a judge or a resident or a homeowner. The locals regard him as an outsider, perhaps explaining why he’s being rescued in the first place - it’s not that he’s righteous, it’s just that God called for the obliteration of all the locals, and Lot’s not a local; he’s a tourist.
Richard Elliott Friedman, a bible scholar at UC San Diego who I had the pleasure of learning from at Ramah Darom for several years, suggests that “as a matter of near Eastern hospitality, a host must do anything to protect his guests.” I’m not sure if that gives clarity to Lot’s ultimate moral character, but it does imply that, if the most important thing for a man is to be hospitable, then Lot is to be regarded as good in these culturally important respects, and questionable in others.
I will admit that attempting to discern whether Lot is simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is overly simplistic. With notable exceptions at the extremes, most people are not judged solely by either the worst thing they ever did in their life or the best thing they ever did in their life. Twentieth century bible commentator Gunther Plaut perhaps has the most nuanced stance towards Lot when he writes “Lot is in many ways the average man. He has streaks of greatness, moments of courage, but he is all too often subject to the attractions of comfort and pleasure. These in time cause his downfall.” But Plaut adds, “Attracted by Sodom's affluence, he chooses that city as his home, despite its debased condition. Whatever other customs and habits he adopts, he preserves his sense of hospitality and decency toward strangers. He risks his own and his family’s safety in order to protect the men who are under his roof. This courage redeems much of his indecisiveness, faint heartedness, and anxiety, which the remainder of the story reveals.”
The thing about Lot that is hard, and troubling, which Guther Plaut is tugging at, is that his sin isn’t that he’s a bad person. It may simply be that he is an inadequately good person living in a bad society - that he chooses to live in a place filled with bad actors, and is insufficiently outraged to either leave or be an agent of change. To that end, both the Spanish 13th century commentator Ramban and the 20th c commentator Nechama Leibovitz note that the most egregious sins of Sodom are not violence, or sexual assault, or vice or lawlessness, but rather the twin evils of indifference towards the poor and the perpetuation of a society of systemic injustice - as we saw in the courtroom drama of our midrash above.
This is hard, and troubling, because we too are average women and men living in a society that is rife with injustice and economic struggle.
Our very democracy, the foundation of American justice, has shown evidence of cracks in the most recent years, from the January 6 insurrection to wildly dishonest claims of voter fraud, to partisan gerrymandering and the questionable decisionmaking of the Supreme Court. And there is so much poverty. The vast majority of American wealth is in the hands of just 0.1% of the population. Our nations food banks see rising demand each year. The city I grew up in, Los Angeles, estimates it currently has a homeless population of 65,000, and it grows year over year as the city puts its resources towards other things. Nachmanides, first quoting Ezekial, writes of Sodom, “‘Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.’” He continues - “The traditional view is that they were evil in every respect, but that this sin of not supporting the poor - the sin they most frequently practiced, that sealed their doom.”
When we ask questions about whether Lot was good or bad or complacent or inadequate, all I can think of is whether we are good or bad or complacent or inadequate.
There is another midrash in conjunction with destruction of Sodom - explaining that line in Genesis 18:20 in which it says that “their sin was so great” . The city of Sodom decreed that anyone that fed or gave water to the poor and the indigent and the resident alien would be burned. A woman named Plotit, wife of a prominent leader, went every day to the square to draw from the well. And everyday, she would bring a jug with food and water to provide for a poor man. And the people of Sodom asked, ‘how is he still alive?’ And when they caught him and he cried out to God, that is when the city was judged too far gone.
The message for me is twofold. One, sometimes to be a just person, we must take a hard look at the conventions of the society in which we live, the normalization of inequality or injustice or mistreatment, and be willing to defy that society in order to say ‘I refuse to be a part of this, and I refuse for the society I live in to behave like this.’ And two, the story ultimately isn’t about whether Lot is good or bad or indifferent, but whether Lot is tasked with doing it all by himself. A rotten society is rotten because too few people step up to do the good work - we rely on tzaddikim to do the heavy lifting of doing good, instead of commiting to the idea that average persons are the backbone of good in a society. It’s not somebody else’s job. It’s your job. Us average people are the tzaddikim. Shabbat shalom.