Fire and Brimstone... Again?
The Surprising Relationship Between Blessing And Curses In The Bible
In Parshat Nitzavim, the Torah describes a certain kind of sinner who seems to think that God just won't punish him. This sinner, we're told, most certainly will be punished – and in a pretty surprising way. The Torah tells us that his fate will mirror the fate of Sodom: fire, brimstone, the whole shebang.
But why would this person's arrogant attitude warrant this particular reaction? Is there something about this sinner that's somehow connected to Sodom?
As a matter of fact, the answer might just be "yes." There are other, subtle clues in Parshat Nitzavim that seem to be pointing us back to the story of Sodom – and to one specific part of it, in particular: Abraham's plea on the city's behalf. And when we start to examine these clues, we might just learn something critical about what it really means to be a part of God's nation.
Hi! This is Daniel Loewenstein, and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Nitzavim.
In the beginning of the parsha, Moshe tells the Israelites that God is formally inducting them into His covenant: He will be their God, and they will be His nation. And just after this declaration, Moshe turns to a related, uncomfortable topic: what happens if someone decides to violate the covenant?
From Israel's Blessings... to Curses
לֹא-יֹאבֶה יְהוָה, סְלֹחַ לוֹ, the Torah says.
God will not forgive him.
Rather, His wrath will burn against this sinner, and terrible curses will befall him. Now that doesn’t sound so pleasant, but it also sounds a little generic. Right? ‘If someone sins, punishment will be meted out.’ We’ve heard that sort of thing in the Torah before.
But then, there’s something in the parsha’s description of these punishments that we don’t really hear anywhere else. We’re told that God will rain down fire and brimstone, bringing total destruction and desolation.
Desolation, the Torah says, כְּמַהְפֵּכַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה – just like what happened to Sodom and Amorah, the cities that God destroyed in His wrath all those years ago.
Sulfur, salt, scorched earth. Blackened fields, and an utter absence of life. That’s a haunting visual. And it’s also... incredibly uncommon. There are plenty of descriptions of devastation and punishment in the Torah, but the Torah never compares any of them to Sodom.
So...why does the Torah do it here? Is Sodom just a handy image of total ruin, an easy way to convey the horror of the scene? Or is there something more? Is there something about the story of Sodom that’s being echoed in our parsha?
Well, there’s one way to find out. Let’s take a closer look at the text here in Nitzavim, and see if there’s anything else points us to Sodom.
Following the Path of Blessings in the Bible
The Torah begins by saying, maybe there’s a person, or family, or tribe who doesn’t want to follow God’s covenant:
וְהִתְבָּרֵךְ בִּלְבָבוֹ לֵאמֹר שָׁלוֹם יִהְיֶה-לִּי
And he’ll bless himself in his heart, and say, “I’ll have peace.
כִּי בִּשְׁרִרוּת לִבִּי אֵלֵךְ
I’ll follow my heart’s will - and I’ll still be fine.” And why is he so sure?
לְמַעַן סְפוֹת הָרָוָה אֶת-הַצְּמֵאָה.
“Because the well-watered will sweep along the parched.”
Oh, yeah. That’s why. Of course.
This last line is clearly a very cryptic metaphor, and I talk about some of the theories the commentators have about it in a blog post linked in the description. But the explanation that makes the most sense to me is the one suggested by R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch.
He argues that the “well-watered” and the “parched” are metaphors for the righteous and the wicked, making the meaning of the verse, “The righteous will sweep along the wicked with them.” And that means that the sinner is essentially thinking something like this: I can do whatever I want, and I won’t suffer any consequences for it.
You know why? Because there are all these righteous folks about, and God promised them peace and prosperity and a whole bunch of good things. So, he thinks, what’s God going to do? Give them all that good stuff, but not me? Can’t happen. When it rains, it rains for everyone. When there’s peace, there’s peace for everyone.
My little patch of land isn’t going to suffer a mini-famine, enemies aren’t going to drop a bomb on my house but leave everyone else alone. So, by that logic, I’ll get swept along in the tide of everyone else’s blessings. God’s not going to destroy them just to get to me – so I’m safe.”
Okay. So this guy is a sleaze. He knows full well that he’s sinning, but he smugly reassures himself – he “blesses himself in his heart” – because he thinks he can get away with it. He thinks that he’s got God in a corner, that God’s hands are tied. But, we’re looking for Sodom connections here. Is there anything about this guy that specifically reminds us of the story of that wayward city?
Now, before we all start flipping back to Bereishit to check, let’s look at one more thing here in Nitzavim. In the midst of describing this sinner’s punishment, we get this strange digression, where the Torah tells us all about these different groups of spectators. These people who witness the devastation God brings down. The Torah says:
וְאָמַר הַדּוֹר הָאַחֲרוֹן
A later generation will remark;
בְּנֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר יָקוּמוּ מֵאַחֲרֵיכֶם
Your children who will come after you.
וְהַנָּכְרִי אֲשֶׁר יָבֹא מֵאֶרֶץ רְחוֹקָה
And foreigners coming from distant lands; [they’ll see the sulfur and salt and scorched earth.]
And all the nations will say,
עַל-מֶה עָשָׂה יְהוָה כָּכָה לָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת
“Why did God do this to this land? What made Him so angry?”
And they’ll conclude,
עַל אֲשֶׁר עָזְבוּ אֶת-בְּרִית יְהוָה
“It must be that those who were punished abandoned the covenant of God. There’s just no other explanation.”
Watching the Biblical Curses Unfold
Now, we kind of have to wonder: why does the Torah feel the need to tell us about these future generations and foreign nations who are going to sit and schmooze about these punishments? A sinner sins, and God punishes him – isn’t that the end of the story?
Why do I need to hear about these people standing around, munching on their popcorn and staring wide-eyed as they watch the punishment unfold? Does that matter? Is is important? It must be, if the Torah goes into so much detail, but it’s not at all clear why it would be.
But let me ask you: does any of this remind you of Sodom? Are future generations and foreign nations part of that story?
I think that both of the elements we saw – the sinner who expects to be treated like the righteous, and the children and foreign nations who are watching from the sidelines – are actually very reminiscent of one particular part of the Sodom story.
I’m thinking of the very beginning of the story, when God first reveals to Avraham what He plans to do to the wayward city. So come with me, to Bereishit chapter 18, and I’ll explain what I mean.
Abraham's Generational Blessings in the Bible
The story begins with God speaking to Himself. He knows He’s planning on destroying Sodom. But there’s one thing He doesn’t seem to be sure about. He says,
הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה
Am I going to hide from Avraham what I plan to do?
וְאַבְרָהָם--הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם
Avraham is going to become a great and powerful nation
וְנִבְרְכוּ-בוֹ--כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ
And all of the nations of the earth will be blessed through him.
Avraham has this great destiny ahead of him, he’s going to be an inspiration and a source of blessing for the world. So, yes, I’m God, and I don’t need to explain myself to anyone. But maybe I should, here.
For I’ve come to know him,
לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו
And Avraham is going to instruct his children and his household that will come after him
וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט
So that they’ll keep the way of God, doing what’s right and what’s just.
Avraham is going to teach his children to follow Me, to always do what’s right. And for that to happen, God seems to be saying, I need to show him My ways. He needs to understand how I think. He needs to understand what צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט, what righteousness and justice, really are. And so God reveals to Avraham His plans to destroy Sodom.
So let’s stop here for a minute. Did anything we just read sound familiar?
Well, actually, yeah. For one, God describes the role of Avraham and his descendants as וְנִבְרְכוּ-בוֹ–כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ – all of the nations of the land will be blessed through him.
Was there any mention of blessing in Nitzavim? There was. In our parsha, the sinner is described as וְהִתְבָּרֵךְ בִּלְבָבוֹ לֵאמֹר שָׁלוֹם יִהְיֶה-לִּי – he blesses himself in his heart, reassuring himself he’ll be fine despite his errant ways. So there’s blessing in both of these stories.
Others Blessed Through You... or Blessing Yourself?
But there’s something very different about these blessings. Think about their direction – where do they start and where do they end?
In Bereishit, Avraham is the source of ברכה, and through him, everyone else gets blessed. So the blessing moves from Avraham outward, to the rest of the world.
But what about in Nitzavim? What’s the direction of the blessing there? Well there, it’s inward – וְהִתְבָּרֵךְ בִּלְבָבוֹ, he blesses himself. It almost suggests a kind of inverse relationship between Avraham in Bereishit, and the sinner in our parsha.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. ברכה is a pretty common word in the Torah; it would be rash to read too much into the blessing connection. Is there anything else that’s familiar about this section? I think there is.
A Closer Study of Israel's Blessings in the Bible
Let me ask you: how exactly are Avraham and his descendants meant to be sources of blessing to the nations of the world? How does that work? Is it magic? Some spiritual force emanating from him and washing over everyone else?
Well, the text doesn’t really spell it out. But in another parsha video, Rabbi Fohrman makes the case that Avraham was actually meant to serve as a role model. He and his descendants would stand for all the right values, and the rest of the world would have the opportunity to learn from that example. They’d see Avraham’s greatness, and emulate it, and in doing so, their own good deeds would earn them blessing from God.
Now if that’s true, well, then who is Avraham really responsible to teach? Who is meant to learn God’s ways from him? We know God expects him to teach בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, his children who will come after him, but is that it? Not really. He will teach his household, and through them, the lessons will spread outward, to כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ, the nations of the world.
And...who were the spectators in Parshat Nitzavim? Who was the audience remarking about the devastation?
בניכם אשר יקומו מאחריכם
Your children that will come after you; and,
All the other nations.
Do you see that? It’s the same people! Avraham is charged with teaching the right and the just to his descendants and to the nations of the world, and in Nitzavim, the Israelites’ descendants and the nations of the world are the ones witnessing this Sodom-like punishment. Isn’t that crazy?
And we’re not done yet. Take a look at what happens next in the Sodom story:
God decides to reveal His plans to Avraham, and Avraham responds with a challenge. He says that it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be fair to destroy the city:
הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, he asks:
Will You, God, sweep away the righteous along with the wicked?
חָלִלָה לְּךָ, Avraham says, what a terrible, unjust thing it would be to destroy a whole city, and punish the righteous within it for the sins of the wicked. If anything, he argues, it should be the other way around: the wicked within the city should be spared because of the righteous!
So let me ask you: is there anything familiar about Avraham’s words, הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע?
Yes! The word תִּסְפֶּה – will You sweep along – it’s the same word as סְפוֹת from our parsha! לְמַעַן סְפוֹת הָרָוָה אֶת-הַצְּמֵאָה: The well-watered will sweep along the parched.
And...it’s not just the word that’s the same. The sinner in our parsha was reassuring himself he’d be safe, because he’d be swept along with the righteous. Because God doesn’t punish the righteous just to get to the wicked. It’s exactly the same argument that Avraham is making! God, don’t punish the righteous just to get to the wicked!
Only, it’s not really the same, is it? There’s a glaring difference between Abraham and the sinner. Yes, they’re using the same argument – but to what end? What is each one trying to accomplish?
Well, Avraham is arguing on behalf of the people of Sodom. He’s trying to protect others. But the sinner, he’s twisting the argument to try to protect himself. It’s a total perversion of the logic – this sinner is taking Avraham’s selfless defense of the wicked, and turning into something corrupt and selfish.
So let’s stop for a minute and take stock of what we have here. We’ve got all these links between these two sections – ברכה, children and foreign nations, סְפוֹת/תִּסְפֶּה and the wicked being spared for the righteous. The reference to Sodom in Nitzavim is shaping up to be much more than just a handy image. There’s something bigger going on, a deeper reason why the sinner in Nitzavim receives the punishment of Sodom. But what is it?
What Is the Bible Saying About Blessings and Curses?
Well, let’s go back to God’s plan for Avraham for a minute, and think about it. What did God say He was hoping for? He wanted Avraham to become a great nation, and for that nation to serve as a beacon of inspiration, as one giant role model, for the rest of the world. This nation would keep His Torah, they would follow in His ways, they’d pursue צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט, and everyone would look to them for moral and spiritual guidance.
But the fact is, there’s more than one way to teach the world what righteousness and justice look like. People can learn by example from those who are great and virtuous, they can be inspired by the good that others do. But people can also grow by seeing firsthand what cruelty and selfishness look like and being repulsed by them, seeing how the lives of the morally bankrupt are empty and sad – and seeing how God ultimately deals with those kinds of people. And in that sense, the immoral can be role models too – for how not to live.
And so, in Nitzavim, as we sign on the dotted line, so to speak, and agree to be God’s nation, God says: this covenant means you’re going to be my role models – one way, or the other. If you keep the Torah, if you pursue צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט and walk in My ways, if you follow the path of Avraham, then that’s how you’ll fulfill your end of the deal here. And that’s what we’re all hoping for.
But there is this chance that someone won’t be interested. That he’ll say, “I want to do what I want. I’m not interested in this role-modeling gig, being all virtuous, so others can grow through me. And so instead of carrying the weight of others, I’m going to make everyone else carry my weight. I’m going to cheat the system, and make the merits of everyone else work for me, so I can do whatever I want.” And that’s something beyond a regular sin. That’s a total rejection of the mission, a corruption of it.
But you know what? It doesn’t work. He’s still going to end up being a role model. Those people he’s supposed to teach, and inspire? They’ll learn what they’re meant to anyway. That’s what it means to be part of God’s nation. It’ll just happen in a different way; a way that’s a lot less pleasant than it could have.
So what’s the bottom line? God invited us to be His nation, and to show the world His ways. How that happens, that’s up to us.