Saturday, October 20, 2007

Parshat Vayera

When G-d tells Avraham that He is about to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, Avraham pleads and bargains with G-d to save those cities and their inhabitants. During the negotiations, Avraham shows his humility by describing himself as “mere earth and ashes” (Genesis 18; 27). Rabbi Yonasan Eibschitz points out that with the double phrase of ‘earth and ashes’ Avraham is seeking extra merit for the people of Sodom. ‘Earth’ stresses the fact that people are only mortal, and their origin is in the earth. With such a background it is only natural that people are drawn to sin, since the base element of their physical body draws the soul away from G-d.
However, Avraham himself show the futility of this claim. If he was able to surmount such humble origins, and elevate himself to the service of G-d, what excuse do the people of Sodom have? Elsewhere in the Tanach we find a similar claim. The Tzorfati woman asks Eliyahu to leave her home, saying: “Have you come to me to show up my sins, to kill my son?” (IKings 17; 18). Though she was one of the few righteous people of the generation, compared to Eliyahu she felt inadequate, and any shortcomings that she had were highlighted by his near perfection. Though Avraham was arguing on behalf of the Sodomites, his personal commitment showed up their faults. Therefore he added ‘ash’, as a reminder of the fact that he had survived being thrown into a furnace by Nimrod, in Ur Kasdim. Though he survived miraculously, he could have been burnt to ash. Since he personally experienced the miracle of surviving the furnace, he had a greater debt of gratitude to G-d. Therefore he describes himself as ash to plead on behalf of the Sodomites that because they had not experienced this Divine salvation G-d could not reasonably expect such a high level of behaviour from them.
There is another dimension to Avraham describing himself as ‘earth’. G-d changed his name to Avraham, meaning ‘father of many nations’ because Avraham felt an affinity with people of every nation and origin. He was able to see the intrinsic holiness within each person, and bring out that goodness, leading to spiritual growth. Therefore he is like the earth, which spreads across national boundaries indiscriminately. Earth is also the environment in which seeds grow, turning the smallest ‘spark’ of life into trees and flowers.
This ‘mineral’ description of Avraham is in sharp contrast to that of Lot’s wife. After fleeing from Sodom, she looked back to see the destruction, and was turned into a pillar of salt (19; 26). The pillar, which is firmly rooted to a geographical location is the opposite of the earth which covers almost all of the globe. Also, salt is singled out in Midrashic literature as the most infertile substance. For example, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, they ploughed it with salt to try and prevent it’s resettlement.
Avraham’s name shows his ability to reach out to everybody. Lot’s wife, according to Midrashic literature (e.g. Ramban to 19; 17) was named Irit, which means ‘city dweller’. She was firmly attached to her locale to the point where she was unable to leave, even though it cost her her life. Avraham’s humility made him the international man, Lot’s wife epitomised the Sodomite mentality of ‘what’s mine is mine’ (Ethics of the Fathers 5; 10), which prevented any connection or feeling of fraternity with any visitors or strangers.
Yet these three minerals, earth, ash and salt all come together on the altar in the Temple. The main altar is known as the Mizbeach HaAdama (earthen altar), and their were always ashes on it. In addition, the Torah commands that each sacrifice must be accompanied by a small amount of salt (Leviticus 2: 13). This symbolises the dual nature of the Temple and the Jewish people, as both concerned with the welfare of the world, and personifying humility, while at the same time clinging to the laws, traditions and customs that have been practised through the millennia.

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