The Characteristic of Sodom (Lekh-L’kha)
I have a problem with stuff. My main issue is that if I put something in a drawer, I immediately forget that it exists. I moved home in July, and I still have four unpacked boxes and - don’t judge me - I have no idea what’s in them.
Avram and Lot have a problem with stuff. It’s a different kind of problem to mine.
In this week’s Torah portion, Lekh-L’kha, Avram responds to the call of the Divine and sets off on his journey - and he takes with him his wife, Sarai, his nephew, Lot (plus Lot’s family), and a bunch of stuff. And they continue to gain more - more riches, more people, more stuff. After leaving Egypt, Avram is described as being kaveid me’od with cattle, and silver, and gold - sometimes this gets translated as Avram being ‘very rich’, but it really means he was ‘very heavy’. He was heavy with his wealth. And Lot also had his own cattle and riches and people. And the land was not ‘big enough for the both of us’, as they say.
In more literal terms, our parashah (Gen. 13:7-8) says it this way:
‘And the land could not support them dwelling together, for their possessions were so rav, so great, that they could not dwell together. And there was riyv - quarrelling - between Avram’s herdsmen and Lot’s herdsmen.’ There was a rav - a greatness to the amount of stuff they had, and it led to a riyv - a strife. The words don’t have the same root, but I feel that there is some wordplay happening here. Why would a rav, a greatness, lead to a riyv, a strife?
This is not a teaching on leaving your stuff behind. I really should unpack those four boxes. But there is something important here about how ownership of things can pull people apart.
There is a famous teaching in Pirkei Avot (5:10), which goes like this:
אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בָּאָדָם. הָאוֹמֵר שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, זוֹ מִדָּה בֵינוֹנִית. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, זוֹ מִדַּת סְדוֹם. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלְּךָ וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלִּי, עַם הָאָרֶץ. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלְּךָ וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, חָסִיד. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלִּי, רָשָׁע:
There are four characteristics of humanity. The one who says ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’ - this is a commonplace person. And some say: this is the characteristic of Sodom. The one who says ‘what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine’ - this is an am ha’aretz, an unlearned person. The one who says ‘what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours’ - this is a chasid, a pious person. And the one who says ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine’ - this is an evil person.
I think it’s important to know two pieces of context. First, this is not talking about tzedakah (‘charity’). That’s a mitzvah, an obligation, and it has its own teaching just a few paragraphs further down. So the one saying ‘what’s mine is mine’ is not specifically denying the mitzvah of tzedakah. And the second piece of context that I think is important is that there are rules on how much we are allowed to give away. Ours is not an ascetic tradition. We don’t tend to do the ‘give away all your stuff and go live in a cave thinking about God’ thing, partly because we’re warned against leaving ourselves destitute. Talmud Ketubot 50a says: if you want to give things away, that’s great; you can give away one fifth of what you own.
So the person saying ‘what’s mine is mine’ is not denying giving to the needy, and the person saying ‘what’s mine is yours’ is not actually giving away all their stuff.
So what gives?
I recognise that I have given you two questions here: 1. What goes so wrong with Avram and Lot, how does their rav turn into riyv, and 2. What is this text from Pirkei Avot trying to teach us, if it isn’t ‘give away all your things to be pious’.
In order to address both of those, I want to take us to a third place. I taught in the Salon this Wednesday about monotheism, and touched on the problem of idolatry, and I want to bring that back here. There are multiple problems that are set up by avodah zarah - strange worship, or idol worship. One of those things is about gods who aren’t the one true God of the heavens and the earth. But our texts really like to press on the issue of physical idols. Even if we’re worshipping the Divine, even if we understand that there is a Divine Oneness, we are still not supposed to build idols and bow down to them. Because there’s something about the physical idol which is itself a problem. But it’s not that there is an object. We like to kiss the Torah scroll - or, as it is right now, blow kisses in a Covid-safe manner to the Torah scroll. Once upon a time, we would bring things to the Temple to use them in worship. What is the fundamental difference between bringing an item to give it at the Temple in worship of God… and creating an idol?
The problem with idols is, I think, about human power over objects. There is something about monotheism, there is something about the Great Other that is God, that requires us to be in relationship with something we did not create and we have no significant control over. By reducing divinity into idols, we partake in the very natural but very problematic instinct to have control.
Idol worship is ultimately about us re-imagining godliness into objects, which allows us to pretend we can contain and control divinity, because our hands shaped the object. But the object itself was never bad. The wood is not bad, the carving knife is not bad, but what we do with them somehow has incredibly destructive potential in our relationship with the Divine.
The problem was never the stuff. The problem was always our perspective on it.
The person who says ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours’ is a usual person, and that is the problem with Sodom. Sodom, which gets destroyed because the people there do not care about one another. Sodom, where Lot ends up settling after he parts from Avram. Lot and Avram think: my stuff and your stuff cannot stay together, because it’s all too heavy. They think: the rav is causing the riyv - the amount is causing strife. They think the problem is the stuff. And so Lot has to go, and he settles in Sodom, in a place that fully buys into ‘mine is mine and yours is yours’.
The person who says ‘what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours’ envisions their ownership differently. I’ll remind you, this is not about giving everything away. Instead, there is some perspective this person brings to their possessions which allows them to use objects to build relationships instead of tearing them apart. ‘What’s mine is yours’ is the mindset of Avraham next week, it’s the mindset of Avraham’s open tent, his tent with no walls, but for whatever reason he hasn’t learnt that lesson just yet. This is the difference between idol worship and Temple worship. In idolatry, we attempt to understand the Great Other by pushing it into a box, making it safe by giving ourselves control over it. In Temple worship, we took from our wealth and used it to bring ourselves closer to the Great Other. That’s why the word for sacrifice is korban, which means ‘to bring close’. The chasid in Pirkei Avot, like Avraham of next week’s Torah portion, the person who says ‘what’s mine is yours’, he gets this concept. What’s mine is best used to come close to others, to strengthen society, to build a better world. This is the mindset that sees the home as a place to share meals rather than walls to keep us apart.
Avram has a problem with stuff, but the stuff is not the problem. The problem is that Avram and Lot believed in ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours’. Perhaps this is part of Avram’s journey out of the world of idol worship. Perhaps, if Avram and Lot were ready to think less like the idol worshippers of their backgrounds, it would not have felt so necessary for them to walk in opposite directions.
May we all be blessed to see what we own as a means for developing relationships, and for walking together in the world.