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Shavuot: The Scandalous Backstory of Ruth and Boaz
Video 2 of 4
Well we know what happens in Sodom, they get into Sodom and they end up saving Lot. But the problem is if - I don't know, if I was an angel, and I was sent to save Lot, first thing I'd do is I'd go to Lot's door, I'd flash my Angel FBI pass and I'd take off my sunglasses and I'd say, sir, come right this way, we don't have a moment to lose. I'd whisk you onto my waiting camels and off we would go. But that's not actually what happens, they hang around in Sodom for a while, Lot finds them, invites them in, they go and they have this big feast in Lot's house, they seem to have all the time in the world. Then all of a sudden there's this mob that convenes by the door demanding that the guests be thrown out to the mob and it's at that moment that finally the guests say, quick, you don't have a moment to lose, let's get out of here. What's that about? What really is their mission in Sodom? Neither of the obvious theories seem to fit so easily.
So allow me to suggest a theory here for your consideration. The larger story may just be about kindness - genuine kindness and imitated kindness, a kind of broken kindness. Let me explain what I mean. When is it that G-d decides to destroy Sodom? It happens immediately after the most extended kindness narrative in the Torah. The story of Abraham immediately after his own circumcision at an advanced age, when he would have been in great pain, and he goes and he sees these angels and he invites them in and he asks them to wash their feet and he provides this big feast for them. He really puts himself out for them. At the end of that story Abraham is rewarded with news that there will be a miraculous child for him and Sarah despite his advanced years. As he bids the angels farewell; Vayashkifu al pnei Sodom - they gaze out towards Sodom, and it's right then that G-d sort of comes out of the clouds and says, you know, I think I'm going to have to destroy Sodom. Why all of a sudden?
And why for that matter consult Abraham about the destruction? Abraham goes on this long bargaining session with G-d. You know, if there's 50 people would You spare them? Take them down to 45, then 40, all the way down to 10. It's like G-d says, all right just let Me know when you're done, whatever you say, you decide. Where does Abraham get this power to bargain with G-d and to sort of be influential as to whether or not Sodom is going to survive or not?
So here's a theory for you, perhaps Abraham becomes the unwitting prosecutor of Sodom. You see, Sodom was committed to an anti-Chesed, anti-kindness perspective. It was a matter of public policy. Sodom is described as one of the most fertile areas in an otherwise barren wasteland of a desert, how did they keep it all to themselves? The Medrash quoted by Ramban says, by instituting a policy of making sure that any guest that comes was raped and robbed, as the Medrash says. You see it in the demographic makeup of the mob that makes its way to Lot's door when Lot takes in guests, the mob is old people and young people, from all economic strata of society, they all come for the Town Hall protest on Lot's lawn. You have violated the social contract of the city by inviting guests in. All upstanding citizens of Sodom are rightfully enraged and are just exercising their civil duty to protest this terrible crime. So if Sodom is committed to anti-kindness, then when Abraham rises to the greatest heights of Chesed that you can imagine despite his pain, opening his doors to take care of guests, that indicts Sodom. What room is there left in the world for a place like Sodom?
That I think helps to explain the otherwise strange bargaining sessions. You know if Abraham is the unwitting prosecutor here, he gets to decide. G-d says, I better consult Abraham and whatever Abraham says goes. You say 20, fine it will be 20. Finally Abraham stops at 10, and that's the number.
So why then do the angels enter Sodom? What are they doing there? It seems to have something to do with Lot. The answer may well be they're there to see if Lot is worthy of being saved. You see Lot was Abraham's nephew, he grew up in the house of Abraham, but now he's assimilated into the people of Sodom. So is he one of them or not? When Lot sees the angels in Sodom his kindness is tested. So he comes and he invites them into this great feast, similar to the way that Abraham entertained the angels with a feast. There was a moment in which Lot was called upon to turn his back on the values of the surrounding society and to tell the mob; Al nah achai tarei'u - don't do this evil thing.
But there was only one tragic part of this incident, in the middle of this great triumph of Lot is his greatest moment of downfall too. He tells the mob, don't take my guests but here are my daughters. Now, by all indications, the mob weren't interested in the daughters, they continued to press forward to try and get at the guests, but what was Lot thinking? What was he doing? What a callous, awful act that mars whatever kindness he gives to his guests. What's the consequences of that act? The Sages say something very strange in the Medrash. They say that when Lot threw his daughters out to the mob, G-d swore and said, you're saving them for yourself, aren't you? And so it was. Because at the end of the story Lot actually commits incest with these daughters. They think it's an act of Yibum for the world, but Lot knows better and allows himself - without knowing but kind of knowing - to be seduced.
Now it's a strange thing the Sages say because if he was really saving them for himself then why would he throw them out to the mob, he would save them for himself? What does that even mean? But perhaps the Sages are telling us something very deep here about the nature of kindness. The truly kind person is kind to their wife, to their children, and then more extended relatives and to their neighbors and townsfolk and their nation, and ultimately the world. Their natural concentric circles in kindness radiates outward. Lot provided a feast for the angels as did Abraham, but there was something broken in his kindness because at the same moment that he is providing this feast for the angels, that he is defending them, that he is placing his back to the door, he takes his own daughters and casts them out to the mob. Where was the kindness for them? For the closest members of his family there was no kindness, only for the outside circles, but not for the inside circles. Lot's kindness was imitated kindness, he was imitating Abraham, it didn't radiate from the inside, it was a broken kind of kindness.
So what was the legacy of that broken kindness? The legacy was Mo'av, the child of Lot and his daughters. You see it doesn't seem coincidental that those daughters at the very end of the story they end up in this strange, incestuous relationship with their father; it was a second violation of those daughters, not only did he throw them out to the mob he himself violated them. And what is incest really other than a twisted kind of love; it takes the act of love and turns it into something selfish. That leads us straight to Mo'av. Mo'av means Mei'av - from father, it's like naming the child after the act of incest itself. Come here little incest. What an awful thing to name a child. But that's the tragedy of incest, whatever relationship you have with your own parents, even if it's a twisted, terrible one, it's your parents, and it seems normal because this is what your parents are doing.
So what's the legacy of this twisted relationship? What's the legacy of this child of broken kindness? Mo'av actually historically takes kindness and turns it on its head. Why is it that the nation of Israel is bidden later on in its history not to marry into Mo'av? In the words of Devarim; Al devar asher loh kidmu etchem balechem ubamayim - it's because they didn't come out and offer bread and water to you as you left Egypt. They failed to perform Chesed, they wouldn't do it, almost on principle. That's the rationale given by the Book of Deuteronomy. Why might the children of Mo'av not have been so big on kindness? If you were a daughter of Lot and had memories of being thrown out of the door in the middle of the night while your father kept a feast going to provide Chesed to his guests, how interested would you be in Chesed when you grew up? Would you have 13 guests around your Shabbat table? No. Your memories of Chesed would have been bitter; there was Chesed for everyone but you. You would have turned against that; kindness has an awful smell to it, it's revolting to you.
And isn't it interesting that the other time we meet Mo'av is in the aftermath of the Bilam story when of all things the daughters of Mo'av mingled with the Children of Israel promiscuously. They seduced them to bring Israel to worship foreign gods. It's like this crazy, topsy-turvy inversion of things. Because when you really think of it there are two kinds of love, two kinds of kindness in the world. There's public love and there's private love. Public love is the kind of love that you show everyone. Kindness, Chesed, you invite guests into your house, that's the kind of love which is non-exclusive, which is open to the world. But there is a private kind of love, an intimate kind of love, exclusive between a man and a woman. Now keep these two kinds of love in mind and look at Mo'av. Mo'av took public love and made it private, and took private love and made it public. It's the twisted legacy of broken kindness. The legacy of being thrown out on the street by your own father, but having your father also be the sort of, kind of, accomplice in a selfish kind of intimacy, which from his perspective was nothing but incestuous.
We've talked a lot now about the story of Lot and his daughters, it seems relevant to the Book of Ruth because it's the first example of a seduction story that seems to involve a Yibum-like event. But that's not the only reason it's connected to the Ruth story; Ruth is one of the daughters of the nation of Mo'av. What was the story of Lot and his daughters really all about? It was about the birth of this nation, Ruth's nation, the nation of Mo'av. Ruth was not acting in a vacuum, there was a context for how she was acting, and the context was Mo'av. Lot and his daughters, this was the legacy of her ancestors. Mo'av was the nation of broken kindness. So before this series is done we will come back to look at the Book of Ruth in light of the story of Lot and his daughters, to see how the Lot story provides context, influences the development of the Ruth story.
But before we do we need to come back and look at that other digression we were speaking about in Genesis, the other seduction story involving a Yibum-like act, the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Let's come back and do that in our next video.
Thanks for watching these first two videos. To watch the rest of this series click here. Thanks and have a Chag Somayach.
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