The Paradox of Imperfection

The Paradox of Imperfection

By Rabbi Pamela Frydman

(This talk may eventually be linked to the website of Congregation P’nai Tikvah.)

In this week’s Torah portion, G-o-d decides to tell our father Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomora are going to be destroyed.[1] This is an instance in which Abraham displays an uncanny ability to negotiate with G-o-d as though he and G-o-d were friends. This is the story:  G-o-d tells Abraham that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are committing grievous sins by victimizing one another. G-o-d says that the victims are crying out for help and G-o-d has decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of this.

Abraham says to G-o-d, ”Wait a minute, will you destroy the righteous together with the wicked? Perhaps there are only fifty righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah. Won’t you perhaps spare these places for the sake of those fifty righteous people?” And the most amazing thing is that G-o-d immediately gives in and says, “Yes! If I find fifty righteous people there, I will spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of those fifty righteous people.”

Now Abraham is on a roll and he keeps bargaining. He says, “G-o-d, what if we end up being five short and there are only forty-five righteous people in the city of Sodom? Will you still save the city?” G-o-d says yes, so Abraham goes for forty and then thirty and twenty and ten. The Jewish notion of looking for a bargain began in this week’s Torah portion when Abraham bargained with G-o-d to try save Sodom and Gomorrah.

Abraham had a vested interest in the city of Sodom because he had a nephew named Lot who was living there. The expression sodomy comes from the city of Sodom, but the sodomy of that city was rape and that is why sodomy was considered such a heinous crime that G-o-d wanted to destroy the place because of it.

When traditional Jews gather to pray, they make sure they have a minyan. A minyan consists of ten Jewish adults who are in attendance at a service. The reason we want to have at least a minyan of ten is because Abraham convinced G-o-d to save Sodom and Gomorrah if there were just ten righteous people living there. When we pray in a group of ten or more, we are essentially saying to G-o-d, “Dear G-o-d, here we are and we are praying. Please take notice that there are ten righteous people, or more than ten, so please save us and answer our prayers for the sake of these righteous people who are praying to you. Please answer our prayers, heal the sick and comfort those who are in mourning.”

Abraham and his wife Sarah were the first two Jewish people in the entire world. Today, when a person converts to Judaism, they are given a Hebrew name followed by the words “bat Avraham v’Sarah” or “ben Avraham v’Sarah,” meaning son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah. Converts receive a Hebrew name in this way because conversion to Judaism includes the honor of being linked all the way back to the first converts who were our founding father and mother.

When Abraham prayed for Sodom and Gomorrah, he was not praying to save Jewish people, because there were no Jews living in Sodom and Gomorrah; Abraham’s nephew Lot was not Jewish and neither was his family. I think it is also noteworthy that Abraham did not just gather a posse and go to Sodom to rescue his nephew and his nephew’s family. Instead, Abraham stayed home and bargained with G-o-d to save all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah regardless of their religion and regardless of whether they were righteous.

There is a teaching that at the end of days, there will be a Messiah who will rescue us from the difficulties in our lives. There will be no more death and the Jewish people will be a mam’lechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests ministering unto the entire world. It is not our role as Jews to take sides against G-o-d’s creation. Of course, we can have rivalries, such as the rivalries between different sports teams and between people who like to eat different kinds foods and or have different points of views. But the Torah teaches us to love our neighbor as our own self. Every neighbor; not just the Jewish ones. The Torah does not say that we need to like everyone. It just says that we need to love them.

 I find it interesting that Abraham asked G-o-d to save Sodom and Gomorrah if there were a certain number of righteous people living there. He could have asked G-o-d to just save his nephew Lot and Lot’s family, or he could have asked G-o-d to save the righteous people of Sodom and Gomorrah. But Abraham did not do that, and instead, he asked G-o-d to save everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah, knowing full well that there were many evil people living there.

There is something that fascinates me even more than Abraham bargaining with G-o-d to save Sodom and Gomorrah, and that is that Lot and his daughters procreated together and according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will descend from a son that Lot’s daughter conceived with her father. This is the story: Lot’s wife died along the way when the family was fleeing from Sodom. Lot and his daughters took shelter in a cave and lived there. They thought that all of the known civilization had been destroyed and that they were the last righteous people alive. According to the Torah, Lot’s daughters did not want humanity to end, so they got their father drunk and took turns seducing him on two different nights.

What could a woman give a man to drink that would allow him to be awake enough to have sex and not know with whom he was having sex? Now that is a discussion for another time, but for now, I want to say that it is clear from the Torah that the man Lot did not know what he was doing and what his daughters were doing with him until after the fact. However the situation may be understood, it did not involve rape of a woman. It was something else, and whatever it was, it was incest which is clearly and definitively forbidden in the Torah.

The sages teach over and over that the characters in our Torah are very human and they all have flaws. No one in the Torah is perfect; not even G-o-d. During the Holocaust, Jews put G-o-d on trial in a number of concentration camps and related settings. At the end of the trial, they found G-o-d guilty. Then they recited their daily prayers. Eli Wiesel told such a story and I also heard a similar story from one of my cousins who was in concentration camp. How can we pray to a G-o-d who is not perfect? How can we believe in a G-o-d who is not perfect? Perhaps that is exactly what we need to do though, because only if G-o-d embodies evil as well as good can there be room for us who make mistakes every day.

In the Bible, it says in the Book of Ruth that Ruth was a Moabites. One of Lot’s daughters conceived a son with her father and she named him Moab. Moab was the father of the Moabite people. In the closing verses of the Biblical Book of Ruth, it shows that Ruth was the great-great-great-great….grandmother of King David.[2] According to the sages, the Messiah will be a descendant of King David and the sages specifically say that the son whom Lot’s daughter conceived with her father will be the ancestor of the Messiah through King David. So the Messiah will be a descendant of a flawed relationship that is forbidden in the Torah. Our job is not to be perfect. Our job is to be human, to be kind, considerate, thoughtful, and caring; to love our neighbors even if we don’t like them; to care for strangers even if we do not agree with them; to give tzedakah – charity – to those who need it even if those who need it are not perfect; and to engage in tikkun olam – helping to make the world a better place – even though the world is very flawed.

If perfection is not the goal of our lives, then what is? And if we can bear to believe in G-o-d and realize that G-o-d may be perfect in the G-o-dly, but not in the human realm, then what is the purpose of our lives. According to Judaism, our lives have many purposes and the most important involve how we treat others and how we act ourselves. The Prophet Micah sums it up with these words, “Tell us, O human, what is good, and what does G-o-d require of you? Only to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with G-o-d.”

Shabbat shalom.

[1] Genesis 19.

[2] Ruth 4:17-22.