What a story! Sinners! Destruction! Sodomites! There is so much this week’s Parsha, VaYeira, teaches us as it tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s hospitality to strangers, his courage and moral fortitude to argue with God to save the cities (in contrast to Noah’s silence), and of course, the “sin” of homosexuality and sexual depravity.
I understand Abraham’s character as a model to emulate. On the other hand, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah represents one of the greatest bastardizations of a sacred text that I can imagine. To read the Torah on its literal level is the lowest level of understanding. Because the Torah is written without vowels, it requires a deeper examination of the text. Typically, if there is a question about the text's literal meaning, we look elsewhere in our tradition to learn more or find answers. Unfortunately, the inability of fundamentalists to look deeper into the text has resulted in over 2,000 years of torment and persecution of homosexuals. Had they looked beyond fear and prejudice, they could have learned the true sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Genesis 18:21-22 reads:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי-רָבָּה; וְחַטָּאתָם--כִּי כָבְדָה, מְאֹד. אֵרְדָה-נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה; וְאִם-לֹא, אֵדָעָה.
“And the Lord said: ‘The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is very great, and their sin is terribly grievous. I will go down and see whether they have done according to the cry which has come to me.”
One word in this section is written in a very unusual form and requires a deeper examination. The word הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ is almost always translated as “the cry which has come up to Me.” In fact, it should be translated as “the cry of her which has come up to Me.” The rabbis recognized this and looked for clarification. The clarification is found in the Midrash, Pirkei DeEliezer 25, which tells the story of a young woman named Pelotit, who gave water and food to a poor man. When the people of Sodom learned of what she did, they burned her alive. Her dying breath was a cry to God, which ascended to “the Throne of Glory.” According to the Midrash, this cry from the young woman drew God's judgment upon the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Midrash teaches us that the true sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not homosexuality. The true sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not helping the poor and needy and persecuting those who did.
Our tradition understands that the Torah is eternally relevant and speaks to us across the ages and in our own time. So, I ask myself: who is more needy and vulnerable in our age than those who cannot speak or defend themselves? The innocent beings living in the Ocean. The living souls in the water today are under constant threat from overfishing, shark finning, ship strikes, coral bleaching, warming waters, red tide, plastic pollution, dead zones, runoff pollution, from so many threats, and they can do nothing… absolutely nothing, to help themselves.
Today, many people are working to protect marine life and the aquatic environment. However, there are not nearly enough of them, and the resources they have are not nearly enough. In his book Oceana, Ted Danson (yes, that Ted Danson), wrote that of all the philanthropic dollars going to the environment, only 2% goes towards ocean conservation and research.
So, if the Sodomites of old were guilty of being callous towards the weak and needy, let us not be like them. If the Sodomites of old were guilty of punishing those who sought to help those in need, let us not be like them. Many worthy people and organizations are working tirelessly on behalf of life in the Ocean. Here are just a few who are also part of our Tikkun HaYam network. Please learn about their work, and when evaluating how you will use your Tzedakah (philanthropic giving), I hope you will consider supporting them.
PADI AWARE - Jack Fishman
Marine Conservation Network – Kimberly Ray
Israel Oceanographic & Limnologic Research – Dr. Baruch Rinkevich
ICare – Mike Goldberg
Coral Restoration Foundation - Patti Gross
Shark Research & Conservation Program – Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, University of Miami
Micronesia Shark Foundation - Tova Harel
The Great Whale Conservancy – Michael Fishbach
And of course, if you would like to support our work, please include us as well.