The Sin That Can’t Be Forgiven

Is there something so terrible that someone could do to you or to someone you care about that would make you think their act cannot be forgiven? Is there a sin so heinous that it cannot be wiped away by repentance? That is certainly an intriguing question with no obvious answer. The typical person might say that a thoroughly evil person, someone like Adolph Hitler, did things that could never be forgiven and should be punished by death. It’s the less obvious cases that provoke thought and debate.

In this week’s parasha, Vayera, we read of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, twin cities that were apparently so evil that they merited being wiped out by God. And that’s after God affirmed that he would never again repeat the wholesale destruction brought on by flooding the earth, a promise symbolized by a rainbow placed in the sky. What did the Sodomites do that could not have been addressed through rehabilitation and that merited their destruction?

One answer is that they were guilty of sexual depravity, a notion that is supported by the Torah text itself. The Sodomites demand that Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who is hosting two angelic visitors in his home, release his guests to them so that they can commit an act of sexual assault against them. Traditional commentators describe the Sodomites as lacking respect for others, an attitude reflected in their depraved behavior.

Other commentaries, ranging from Talmudic sages to early modern Torah scholars, take a surprisingly different approach by interpreting the sin of the Sodomites as xenophobia. Rabbi Naftali Hertz Landau, a 19th century German scholar whose work is known as “Imrei Shefer,” wrote the following:

The description of the Sodomites abject depravity can be seen as a proof text defending God’s desire to destroy them. The reason why the Sodomites barred strangers from their city was their fear that those foreigners might eventually displace the natives from positions of authority and leadership. They said to Lot, “Think of what would happen if we were to open our gates to more foreigners. Why, they might take over our entire city.” 

The midrash also alludes to the same idea, when it says:

The Sodomites observed an ancient covenant in the city that no one take in guests. They said to Lot, “If you want to take in guests, if you want to welcome outsiders, build yourself a house elsewhere.”

I’m sure that Rabbi Landau and the Midrashic sages would have quite a bit to say about the immigration debate in the United States, and even about the Syrian refugee crisis, were they among us today. But they certainly seemed to think that the sin of the Sodomites was the total rejection of strangers, and that God was justified in wiping them out because of it.

Others comment that the sin of the Sodomites was that of selfishness. In Pirkei Avot, a rabbinic text that preceded the era of the Talmud, we find the following comment:

There are four types of character in people: 1) One that says, “Mine is mine, and yours is yours.” This is a typical type; some say this is a Sodom-type of character. 2) One that says, “Mine is yours and yours is mine,” is an unlearned person. 3) One that says, “Mine is yours and yours is yours,” is a pious person. 4) One that says, “Mine is mine, and yours is mine,” is a wicked person.

Pirkei Avot 5:10

The passage contrasts four types of people, ranging from supremely giving and generous to entirely selfish. Concerning the entirely selfish person, the one who says “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours,” the person who cares only about himself and has no concern for anyone else, is described as “typical.” But other sages disagree and describe such a person as being like the people from Sodom. In other words, the great sin of the Sodomites, that for which they were destroyed without any chance for repentance or rehabilitation, was that of callous selfishness.

So what sin can never be forgiven? The sin of xenophobia? The sin of selfishness? The sin of turning one’s back on our fellow human beings and caring about ourselves only? It may not be that God will punish such behavior with the ultimate punishment, certainly not in the way the Sodomites were punished. But if we behave in that way, if we turn our backs on others with an utter lack of compassion and an absence of generosity of spirit, then we will surely have committed a sin whose impact may be irreparable.

Savoring Genesis

A friend of mine, who is also a rabbi, once tried a new way of reading the Torah in his congregation. He chose to follow an ancient form of the triennial cycle in which the Torah was divided into 150 portions and read consecutively over a three year period. (The modern triennial cycle divides each portion into thirds and reads the first third of every portion in the first year of the cycle, the middle third in the second year and the last third in the third year.) In the ancient cycle, a congregation would begin reading the Book of Genesis in the fall, right after Sukkot, and instead of finishing the book in 10 weeks would finish it in six months. My friend experimented with this ancient cycle but ultimately abandoned it because his congregation thought it was awkward to be out of sync with the Torah reading cycle followed by the rest of the world.

It was a nice idea, though, because it enabled the congregation to dwell on many of the stories and lessons in the Torah without feeling rushed. As my friend once told me, “while the rest of the world is reading about animal sacrifices we’re still savoring the juicy stories of Genesis and Exodus (of course, while the rest of the world was on Numbers and Deuteronomy they were “savoring” Leviticus!).

I feel that way about the Book of Genesis. There are so many wonderful stories and messages contained in each portion that it’s a shame to pass them by so quickly. This week’s portion—Lech Lecha—is a good example. The parasha spans chapters 12-17 of Genesis. There’s simply too much material to read and study all of it. Usually there’s one D’var Torah offered during the synagogue service, and maybe those who attend a class or a meeting will hear a second D’var Torah. Once we finish reading the parasha in the synagogue on Shabbat morning, we set it aside until we return to it next year.

One thing we can do to savor the stories of the Book of Genesis is to spend some extra time reading and studying on our own. There happen to be many books on the Genesis narratives. Some of them are written by psychologists, some by scholars, and some by lawyers. So I encourage you to acquire some of these books and spend some time delving into the juicy stories of Genesis during the next couple of months as we read this fascinating book in the synagogue. I guarantee that you’ll find something of meaning to enhance your life and your relationships with family and friends.

Below are some of the better books on the stories found in Genesis. Most of them are very readable and accessible. Pick one or two and get ready for some enjoyable insights into everyday life.

Self, Struggle and Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights For Our Lives

By Norman J. Cohen

The Beginning of Wisdom

By Leon Kass

Wrestling With Angels: What the First Family of Genesis Teaches Us About Our Spiritual Identity, Sexuality, and Personal Relationships

By Naomi Rosenblatt

The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice That Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law

By Alan Dershowitz

Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

By Bruce Feiler

The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis

By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

Genesis: A Living Conversations

By Bill Moyers

The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development

By Burton Visotzky

Our Fathers’ Wells

By Peter Pitzele

And…no list of books about Genesis would be complete with a wonderful book by Oheb Shalom’s own Ada Feyerick. Genesis: World of Myths and Patriarchs is a marvelous book about the civilizations that gave rise to the world of Genesis.

Did Abraham Properly Care for his Father?

What is our obligation to take care of our parents? What exactly is required of us? When does that obligation begin and how long does it last? Is our obligation cancelled if a parent is cruel or behaves in ways that are immoral or unethical toward us or others? How should the obligation to care for parents be shared by siblings?

These questions hardly form a complete list. We could add many more questions that reflect our own curiosity and our own experience in relating to elderly parents. Of course, the Torah addresses this sensitive subject. 

“Honor your father and mother that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.”

-Exodus 20:12

“You shall revere every man his mother and his father.”

-Leviticus 19:3

The first of these two passages is the fifth commandment, and includes the reference to making our days “long upon the land” as a reward for honoring our parents. Either the Torah means to say that we will actually live longer in exchange for honoring our parents, or that our years will only seem fuller and more meaningful for having cared for our parents. Whichever interpretation is more compelling, we are incentivized not to ignore our parents’ needs. 

The verse in Leviticus uses a different word- revere- to describe our obligation to care for our parents. This change in language prompts a Talmudic discussion about the difference between “honor” and “revere.” We are told that we uphold the commandment to revere or “fear” our parents by showing respect, and we honor our parents by taking care of their material needs.

Our Rabbis taught: What is fear and what is honor? Fear means that the son must neither stand in his father’s place nor sit in his place, nor contradict his words, or tip the scales against him. Honor means that he must give him food and drink, clothe and cover him, lead him in and out.

-Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 31b

The Talmud reinforces the notion that we are obligated to care for our parents and adds a dimension of communal accountability.

Rabbi Yannai and Rabbi Yonatan were sitting and a man came and kissed Rabbi Yonatan’s feet. Said Rabbi Yannai to Rabbi Yonatan: “Why does he feel this way about you?” What have you done for him?” He answered, “Once he complained to me that his son was not supporting him and I told him to go and say so publicly in the town square and shame him.” Rabbi Yannai said, “Why did you not force the son to support the father?” Rabbi Yonatan said, “May one force a son to support his father?” Said Rabbi Yannai, “You still don’t know this?” They said that Rabbi Yonatan went and established it as a rule in Rabbi Yannai’s name.

-Talmud Yerushalmi Kiddushin 1:7

Even this week’s Torah portion, Noah, contains the idea of the obligation to honor our parents. Near the end of the portion we read about the generational transition from Noah to Abraham. After listing the ten generations between them, the portion concludes by describing the first part of Abraham’s journey from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan, a journey he makes with his father Terach, his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot. The family makes it as far as Haran, where Terach stays. From Haran, Abraham, Sarah and Lot continue on alone to Canaan, the Land of Israel that God will soon promise to Abraham’s descendants.

An unusually esoteric Torah commentary called Or Hachayim, written by an 18th century scholar named Rabbi Chayim ibn Attar (Morocco, Italy and Israel) raises an interesting question, one that most people would not think to ask. How could Abraham leave his elderly father behind in Haran and move to another country? Wasn’t he worried about his health and welfare? If, as the Midrash asserts, Abraham was fully versed in the laws of the Torah even before they were brought down from Mt. Sinai centuries after his time on earth, why didn’t he obey the commandment to honor one’s parents?

The answer given in the Or Hachayim seems to let Abraham “off the hook” from the obligation to take care of his father. First Chayim ibn Attar says that God told him to leave Haran and venture on to Canaan in fulfillment of the Divine command to establish the nation of Israel. Thus, we might conclude that Abraham wanted to stay but God assured him that his father would be cared for. The Or Hachayim also suggests that Terach’s long life was due to Abraham’s personal virtue and merit, thus one should not think that his departure for Canaan was an abandonment of his father.

Whatever we might think of Rabbi Attar’s commentary on Abraham and his father, what we can know for certain is that the idea of caring for one’s parent has always been a pressing and important value that is ingrained in Judaism. Whatever Abraham’s relationship may have been with his father (Rabbinic Midrashim all suggest that they had very different values), Abraham had an obligation to care for his elderly father.

We each bear that obligation, though the upholding of that obligation is a different experience for each of us. Some care for their parents with love and devotion, while others do it begrudgingly and with resentment. Others contend with bitterness between siblings as to who has the greater share of responsibility, while some have a rocky relationship with their parent, making it difficult to care for them with an open heart. And still others have parents who insist that they do not wish to be cared for, perhaps they don’t want to be a burden to their children. But whether it’s difficult or easy, our religious tradition teaches that those with living parents must contend with the obligation to both revere, and honor, those who gave us life.

Why does the Torah begin with the letter “bet?”

Having celebrated Simchat Torah and concluded the yearlong reading of the Torah, we now turn our attention to Sefer B’raysheet – the Book of Genesis. Perhaps the most engaging and interesting of the Five Books of the Torah from the perspective of narrative, we can begin this year’s study with a simple question: Why does the Torah begin with the letter “bet?” Teachers and students alike, from the Talmudic Sages, to the Kabbalists and Hasidim, to those who grapple with Torah in our day, read the words of the Torah and seek meaning in every word and in every letter, in what is said and in what is not said. The Torah begins with the words “B’raysheet bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha-aretz…In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” The first letter of the first Hebrew word is a “Bet.” You might think it’s a nitpicky, irrelevant question, one being asked for the sake of asking questions, but, believe it or not, numerous thoughtful answers abound…why does the Torah begin with a “Bet?”

Some of the answers offered have to do with the order of the words of the Torah. For example, the first two words of the Torah—B’raysheet and Bara—both begin with a “bet” while the second two words of the Torah—Elohim and Et—both begin with an aleph.   A Midrash ponders why the Torah didn’t start with the word Elohim, one of the names for God. Instead, says the Midrash, God chose to start the Torah with two “bet words” and two “aleph words,” in that order. Why? To demonstrate right from the beginning that the Torah cannot be predicted and is written without chronological sensibility. We might think that the Torah is like an encyclopedia or a history book. Rather, it should be read like a love letter that is overflowing with emotions and ideas.

Some of the answers suggest that the Torah starts with the letter “bet” because of the shape of the letter. Consider its shape:

bet

A “bet” is closed on three sides—top, right and bottom—and open on the left side. This suggests that the Torah is concerned with everything that happens from the moment of creation onward. It is a book about our struggling to know God, to cultivate faith, and to find our way. The vertical stroke on the right symbolizes a barrier. We cannot know what came before creation or how God came into existence. These questions are intriguing but they are not the concern of the Torah.

The vertical stroke of the “bet” also represents God’s back. In the Book of Exodus (chapter 34), after the episode of the Golden Calf, Moses seeks to know God face to face. God tells him that he will not survive the encounter, but tells him to place himself in the cleft of a rock as God passes by with his back facing Moses. References to God’s physical existence are common (God’s hands and arms are mentioned in the Torah), but these are considered metaphorical. Indeed, a core teaching of Jewish theology is that God has no physical presence in any way that human beings can comprehend. What could it mean to say that Moses saw God’s “back?” The Chatam Sofer (Moses Schreiber, 1762-1839, Germany) answers we cannot see God directly. All we can see is what comes after God, the difference in the world that is felt because of people of faith who do good things because they believe God expects it of them. Thus, the Torah starts with a “bet” to teach us that the impact of our faith is in the good we do for the world.

B’raysheet bara Elohim…In the beginning, God created…Only a single letter can hold a myriad of meanings. Imagine what the rest of the Torah holds in store for us!

An Underestimated Ritual

The recent announcement by NASA confirming that they have found flowing water on the surface of Mars should be of great interest to those who wonder if life, as we know it on earth, is present on other planets. And it may also be of interest to Jews as we grapple to find meaning in the rituals our tradition calls on us to practice.

NASA scientists have long believed that there is frozen water on Mars, likely trapped in its polar ice caps and beneath the surface of the Red Planet. While frozen water may signal that there was once life on Mars, the discovery of flowing water signals the possibility that life, albeit microbial, exists. The reason, simply put, is that flowing water is the cradle of life itself, and this reality is likely true everywhere in the universe. Thus, many religions view water in deeply symbolic terms and use it as an instrument to articulate our yearning for life.

Judaism clearly holds that water is a symbol for life itself. While the Torah tells us that we may not eat meat with blood in it, stating that blood is equivalent to life (thus the kosher laws require that blood be removed from meat through soaking and salting), it places an even greater emphasis on water as the symbol of life. The Sukkot holiday culminates with a prayer for rain, reflecting the truth that life will be sustained and renewed only if rain falls. In fact, one of the great pageants of the year in Biblical times was the Simchat Beit Ha-Shoeva, a water libation ceremony complete with processions with flaming torches, the Lulav and Etrog, and prayers for a rainy season held at the end of the Sukkot holiday in Jerusalem.

Water is used in several cleansing rituals that are meant to represent our transition from a state of impurity to one of purity, a form of reclaiming life. Water is used as well to signify transitions to other stages of life. Menstruating females are required by Jewish law to immerse in a Mikveh seven days after the conclusion of their cycle; this practice is meant to symbolize the renewal of the capacity to conceive life. Jews-by-Choice are expected to immerse in the Mikveh to symbolize their embrace of a new spiritual life. The deceased are cleansed with water before burial in a ritual known as tahara to symbolize the transition from life in this world to another realm of existence. And Jewish people wash their hands ritually before eating a formal meal (one accompanied by bread) to demonstrate our elevation to a higher state of being, a transition from animal to holy creature capable of generosity and gratitude.

We use water on a daily basis for numerous mundane purposes and often, I imagine, we pay no attention to its symbolic value. Through its water rituals, Judaism asks us to appreciate that value. So the next time you eat a meal, I urge you to pause before eating. Wash your hands for the purpose of focusing your attention on something bigger than the food. Recite a blessing to affirm that this act of mindfulness is a specifically Jewish act (Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinhu Melech Ha-Olam Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu Al Netilat Yadayim…Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified our lives by instructing us to wash our hands before eating). Before eating, contemplate the source of the food you are about to eat. Ask yourself where it came from, and express gratitude to the Source of Creation who enables us to eat. Ask yourself how many nameless people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and consider how you can help them. Approach the act of eating with gratitude, humility and compassion, all of which are necessary for us to commit to helping others.

This simple ritual, whose significance has long been underestimated, has the power to transform each of us.