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Sodom and Gomorrah

Cantor Kahan

Hey, how’s it goin’?  It’s been a minute since we last spent moments together in one of these articles. Been busy on my end. You?  I’m guessing there’s a lot going on for you too.  Crazy world, right? All those election commercials…the elections themselves…athletes and musicians sharing their “I’m not saying, I’m just saying” thoughts on Jews, because, you know, that’s totally reasonable.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been finding the landscape around us just a little bit...how do you say….unsettling.  The temperature around us (literally today as I write this) is hotter than usual, in our discourse, in the din of commentary, and at least for me, in the thoughts that tumble through my mind as I try to digest it all.  

So what I do, when seeking relief, is to mentally run away for a bit, or go on a mental vacation…surf the web…find something intriguing.  You know what I saw recently?  Well, no, likely you don’t, but I’ll tell you because that’s just the nice kind of writer I try to be (plus it would be rude to ask a question like that and then just move on without answering it!)  Anyway, I was on Reddit (a website full of random topics, links, videos, etc.) and there was a post on aged beef. Apparently, I needed to know about that, so I clicked on the video.  

In the clip, this really knowledgeable chef was showing us, the lucky viewers, a giant piece of aged beef long forgotten in their restaurant’s walk-in cooler. This thing was gnarly!  After about 15 months of aging and drying in the cooler, the outside of the beef section was rock hard…like a paperweight. It looked like elephant hide…wrinkled, and grey.  The time spent in the cooler dried out all the suppling moisture. It allowed all the natural salts to concentrate and build up on the surface. The toughened rind created by time and environment actually protected the remaining goodness inside.  

So, even though it appeared unusable on the surface level, the chef thought that it would still have some tender and delicious aged meat in the center, if she just cut in deep enough and removed the crusty exterior that built up in that cold and harsh environment.  I could go on about how she used a band saw to cut away the unusable flesh, and how she ended up with about 7 ounces of perfectly pink, rich, supple beef to taste…but I’d rather now make one of those seamless transitions to our Torah portion, based on the intro above. Watch it happen in 3…2…1…

In this week’s Torah portion we read about Sodom and Gomorrah. How was that?  You likely have heard the highlights of the story; Lot and his family have their house attacked by the people living in those cities, and these people are doing all sorts of things that God finds reprehensible.  Lot, along with his wife and two daughters run to escape, as God enacts his vengeance upon both cities. Let me tell you, there’s a lot (pun alert) of troubling and challenging material in this portion, but I want to focus on two details.

Firstly, Lot’s wife turns back to witness the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and as she does, she turns into…a pillar of salt. Now, I contend the Torah is a lot more understandable and relatable if we absorb it as a beautiful source of metaphors, rather than a history textbook.  So, did she really turn into a pillar of salt?  I mean, I guess that could happen, but it stretches my understanding of life here on this planet.  However, if she were to look back, take the time to see all the awfulness that existed behind her…dwell upon the harsh environment of Sodom and Gomorrah, and also take in its destruction - maybe with even a hint of schadenfreude, well in that moment she is drying out, toughening, aging, becoming crusty, weathered, un-supple, salty. Even though the exterior can protect the morsel of tenderness inside, that can eventually all dry up in angst, anger, resentment. One can become entirely salty….entirely salt…walking our pillars around from town to town. 

So it goes as we dwell in the harsh environment around us, and try and “dunk” on each other, on those who have wronged us. But what’s the alternative?  Ah, well this Torah portion, Vayeira, gives us that as well.

Earlier in the portion, Abraham is said to be sitting outside his tent when three visitors appear.  Abraham rushes out to greet them, despite the likely harsh midday heat of the Middle-East, and he welcomes the strangers in to his tent.  Not only that, he offers them refreshments. He is a lovely host, and clearly looking to be good to an other. These three visitors end up being messengers of God.  Good work, Abraham! (and you thought the briefcase-selecting contestants on Deal or No Deal made a good choice! Check out Abraham’s skills!) 

So at the beginning of this portion, we see an elevated example of how to be kind to those in our midst, and later on we see the destruction of a place full of malice and rudeness, and a symbol of the unkind. Abraham goes on to father a nation of people whose torch we bear today. Sodom and Gomorrah goes on to destruction. 

I want to share with you one other very quick anecdote. Yesterday I was driving to the temple from Evanston, and as I came up the Edens, the lanes were reducing for a work crew up ahead.  I got into the middle lane, and a pickup truck moved past me on the left as he looked to merge in.  The car ahead of me sped up, preventing the truck from safely merging into our lane.  I was in position to slow down and create the gap for him…so I did.  You know what happened next? The pickup driver merged into my lane, in front of me, and then did that hand wave in front of his rearview mirror so that I could see him saying “thanks”.  I kid you not, I almost broke into tears.  Not that this was some heroic act, or something that I had never experienced before….No, it was just common decency playing out. I made room for him, as we would hope anyone would do. He merged in and carried on, and even though he didn’t need to acknowledge the subtle and common interaction that happened between us, he waved in appreciation. It’s so simple, but it was so beautiful. I’ve been on-guard in the midst of all the harshness of our current environment, and to just be able to have a basic human, kind, interaction with someone…and have it happen exactly as it normally would when people are decent to each other….it was beautiful. 

As we come through this period of elections, and disagreements…of fears and threats, let’s look to Abraham…let’s look to merging moments in our lives. Let’s look at the road ahead, and not the destruction behind. I fully recognize that many have had pasts with significant trauma, and I would never imply that we can cure all ills by refraining to reflect back. No, therapy and processing are extremely vital tools to moving forward in our lives, and I encourage all to seek those paths for their own health.  Yet, I hope that each of us can identify where we have toughened…where we have built up our thickened rind, and that we each get a chance to nurture the supple goodness inside. Kindness to an other is one great path. Being together is another.  

As we approach this Shabbat, I hope that we have moments together soon, that you choose to explore one of the many classes or events happening in our TBE community, and that we each have a moment of tenderness on this Sabbath.

Shabbat Shalom, 
Cantor Adam

Wed, February 1 2023 10 Sh'vat 5783