Laughing At Logic

The fates of Abraham and Sarah as compared to Sodom teach us that ethics, not power, determines the future.

Commentary on Parashat Vayera, Genesis 18:1 - 22:24

Why do certain nations thrive, while others disappear? Pundits and historians will tell you about political, economic and military factors.

However, our Torah informs us that ethical factors are far more consequential. Powerful nations fall if they are immoral, while weak ones succeed if they maintain moral excellence.

Chosen or Condemned

The Hebrew word tzachak, meaning to laugh, is employed several times in Parashat Vayera, most notably in relation to the birth and naming of our patriarch Yitzchak [Isaac]. The term is also used when Lot tells his sons-in-law that their home city of Sodom is about to be destroyed. They do not believe him, for his words are “like a joke (kimitzacheik) in their eyes.”

To a social or political scientist, the possibility that a wealthy superpower like Sodom will disappear, or that an elderly couple will produce the future regional superpower seems ludicrous.

But this strange outcome is precisely what occurs. Abraham and Sarah have a child, through whom they become the ancestors of Klal Yisrael (the people of Israel). Meanwhile, the mighty city of Sodom is destroyed.

The double reference to laughter demonstrates that both events are improbable to the point of being funny.

Why were Abraham and Sarah chosen and Sodom condemned? What factor gave rise to one and led to the other’s destruction?

The Torah points to hospitality: Abraham invites nomads, who turn out to be angels, into his home and is told of his future as the father of the Jewish people. Lot, too, invites angels into his home and is saved from destruction. But the people of Sodom, who sought to abuse Lot’s guests, are destroyed. Even Lot’s wife, who was halfhearted in her hospitality, does not survive.

Hospitality & Justice

The citizens of Sodom not only act violently toward strangers; they express contempt for justice as well. “Are you, the stranger, going to judge us?” one of the Sodomites asks Lot.

Abraham, on the other hand, demonstrates his just behavior by arguing with God over His decision to destroy Sodom.

Hospitality and justice elevate Abraham and Sarah to the beginnings of a great nation, while intolerance and misanthropy destroy Sodom.

It is “not strength, not might, but God’s spirit,” in the words of the prophet Zachariah, that lifts and lowers nations. The moral and spiritual course chosen by a people, and nothing else, determines its future.

The Torah realizes that this sounds funny, but funny is also the name of the first Jewish child, Yitzchak.

Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

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