By Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
In what must be one of the greatest transitional scenes in the entire Biblical narrative, this week the Torah transposes us from the gracious home of Avraham in one scene and to the evil city of S’dom in the next. Avraham’s home was one of kindness. It was a home where the master of the house would run to greet nomadic wanderers, and invite them into his abode only three days after a bris milah! It was a home in which Sora had opened a door in every direction, ensuring that there was an unrestricted invitation to any wayfarer, no matter which direction he or she came from.
The scene switches to S’dom, a city in which kindness and charity were unheard of. A city in which a damsel who committed the terrible crime of feeding a pauper, was smeared with honey and set out for the bees. Sdom was a city where visitors who had the audacity to ask for overnight lodging were treated to a special type of hospitality. They were placed in beds, and then, if they were too short for the beds, their limbs were tortuously stretched to fit the bed; if they were larger than the beds their limbs were chopped off.
How does the Torah make the transition from the world of kindness and charity to the world of evil? The Parsha tells us the story of three angels who visited Avraham. Each had a mission. Rashi tells us, “one to announce to Sarah the birth of a son, one to overthrow Sodom, and one to cure Abraham.” You see, three were needed as one angel does not carry out two commissions. “Raphael,” explains Rashi, “who healed Abraham went on to rescue Lot, as healing and saving may be one mission.” And so the scene moves from Avraham in Eilonai Mamrei to Lot in S’dom, where the angels posing again as wayfarers were graciously invited. They saved the hospitable Lot and destroyed the rest of the city.
I have a simple question. Why did the angel who was sent to destroy S’dom make a stop at Avraham’s home? Two angels could have gone to Avraham’s home, one to heal Avraham and the other to inform Sora of the good news. The third could have gone directly to S’dom and waited there for the others to catch up. Why make a detour to Avraham?
Traditionally, young children who start learning Talmud, are introduced to Tractate Bava Metzia in general and the chapter Eilu M’tziyos in particular. The tractate deals with property law and emphasizes respect for other people’s possessions. Eilu M’tziyos stresses the laws of returning lost items and the responsibilities of a finder of those objects. Some wanted the boys to learn about the blessings, but Rav Moshe Feinstein insisted that the custom not be changed. He wanted to imbue the youngsters of the enormous responsibilities that they have to their fellow man. One cannot be a Jew only in shul where he can sway, pray, and recite blessings, but one must also be also be a Jew in the outside world, where the tests of honesty arise each day.
I heard the story of one of those youngsters, who found his way off the beaten yeshiva path. His college-years search for spirituality found him studying with a yogi in Bombay, India who railed against Western comforts and derided the culture of materialism. He preached peace, love, and harmony while decrying selfishness and greed. The young man was enamored with his master’s vociferous objections to Western society, until he was together with him on a Bombay street. A wallet lay on the ground. There was cash and credit cards sticking out from it. It was clearly owned by an American tourist. The Yogi picked it up and put it in his sarong. “But it may belong to someone,” protested his young charge. “It is a gift from the gods,” he answered, “heaven meant it for us . . . .” The young man’s protests fell on deaf ears.
At that moment, the words of his Rabbi back in fifth grade rang in his ears. “These are the items that must be announced for return; any item with an identifying sign . . . .”
He was stirred by truth of his traditions, and the purity of his past. He left the Yogi and the wallet, and eventually returned to a Torah life.
It is easy to rail against others. It is easy to talk about loose morals and unethical behavior. It’s even easy to destroy Sdom. But Hashem did not let the angels do just that. He told them all to them first visit Avraham. He wanted them to see what kindness really means. See an old man run to greet total strangers. See a 90-year-old woman knead dough to bake you fresh bread. Meet the man who will plead for mercy on behalf of S’dom. And then, and only then can you mete the punishment that they truly deserve. Because without studying the good, we cannot understand the true flaws of the bad. Without watching Abraham commit true kindness, we should not watch the inhabitants of Sdom get their due.