Sunday, March 22, 2020

Life Under Coronavirus: Week 1

I woke up at this ungodly hour feeling the strong urge, no need, to write. It's not really ungodly- 5:50am- except that I went to bed at 1:30am. As I do when I stay up all night reading about coronavirus, about the risks as they apply to me and people I love.

I'm living in a strange time, and I sense that I will want to document it. Writing is the way I understand myself- it's always been the way that I am in touch with my soul. So perhaps I can write myself to understanding of the world I'm living in now- a confusing one, but a beautiful one.

The novel coronavirus originated in China. We saw the death toll rise. We read about whole sections of China being under lockdown, being quarantined. And yet I thought to myself, "This can't happen here, in the United States. That's something happening there, to other people. People I don't know." And I chuckled as I read stories of children crashing their homework app, giving it one-star ratings in the app store so that it would be removed. I even shared their story with students, along with reassuring information that people in their age demographic were not being severely affected by the virus. In short, I played it down- because I believed it wasn't a big deal. People were comparing it to the flu, and I wasn't scared of the flu.

Then it was elsewhere. Italy. And finally, people I knew were being affected. The Modern Orthodox high school SAR decided to close its doors and move to online learning. My colleagues at Frisch were self-quarantining at home. I still did not believe, and was angry when my husband spent what I felt was an exorbitant amount of money stocking up on groceries for two weeks. At last, we realized there was a strong chance it was coming our way and my colleague and I reached out to our head of school to plan next steps and how to prepare teachers for our imminent reality of Zoom learning, and reliance upon PowerSchool to post all of our materials. I was also scrambling because my younger child's school had closed for Parent Teacher conferences on Thursday, March 12- but then decided not to reopen. I stayed home on Friday, March 13 to watch him and emailed my principal that I had to figure out childcare for him and my daughter, as her school emailed us that Friday that they too were closing. My daughter was upset because that Sunday was supposed to have been parent-teacher conferences and she had created a wishlist with books she wanted us to purchase at the Book Fair. At that point, my biggest concern was that my children were home while I was still teaching at school, and I didn't have a plan in place. My head of school emailed me to say chances were their schools would be closed for closer to 5 weeks, not 2, and I began panicking about having them home with me through Pesach. How exactly was I going to make Pesach with two little ones running around?

Despite watching my son that Friday, I came in to have a meeting with our head of school and my fellow tech guru so we could make a plan to train teachers. Our principal held an all-faculty Zoom meeting that Saturday night to prepare everyone, and my colleague and I taught all the teachers how to use Zoom and PowerSchool during Monday, March 16. By then, Governor Pritzker had cancelled all schools, private and public, and said they would be closed through March 20th. This was unprecedented- Chicago Public Schools almost never closes, and they had already had an 11 day teachers' strike. Obviously, our school was cancelled as well. That Monday was the day that students came to school to pick up their belongings while my colleague and I held trainings in the Science Commons. I was there from 9:45am-4:30pm; he was there longer. We set people up on their iPads and personal computers and we hoped and prayed that everything would go relatively smoothly.

Tuesday, March 17, was our launch day. Immediately, we needed to troubleshoot- and we did. I sent out a Tech Tools Cheatsheet with every possible weblink for our school system our teachers could need. I relied on Screencastify to make short videos to walk everyone through what to do. The next day, we responded to teachers' needs regarding Zoom, and sent out a Zoom cheatsheet. And then I taught teachers how to upload their PDFs to Google Drive and share them with their students. Throughout all of this, I had also offered to help others who were in a bind and struggling to figure out new technology, posting in JEDLAB. I posted because my friend Marc told me he thought my skills would meet a need, and I was shocked, surprised and gratified to see that over 143 people liked it. Suddenly, I was receiving 30 emails and making times to talk to people I had never met before- trying to help them see which tech tools would be a most appropriate fit for them. Here's the post for the sake of posterity:



That entire week was exhausting. I went to bed very late, working on helping people- those I knew and those I didn't- with technology. I was also heartsick over my first class with misbehaving students (they invited crashers to our Zoom meeting, played inappropriate music and scribbled all over my shared screen). Even though that was only one class out of five, my reaction tends to be to focus on what went wrong as opposed to what went right (which is to be expected- that is, after all, human). I also spent the week sad for my seniors- people who had been looking forward to Fashion Show, Senior Retreat and even Graduation- when we now did not know if any of that would happen.

While this was occurring, Chicago was engaging in an internal battle over what to do with the shuls and places of worship. The CRC, represented by Rabbi Yona Reiss, sent out a letter explaining that all shuls needed to close immediately, that no house minyanim were permitted, and that smachot had to be celebrated in small ways, with very few people in attendance. However, Rav Fuerst offered a different psak, and so some other shuls stayed open. I knew this was a mistake and found it frustrating, but didn't have any power to correct it. Later, I urged a doctor I knew to call Rav Fuerst and explain the medical situation- later in the week, the Agudah joined with the CRC and *all* the schools closed. Additionally, Chicago Public Schools (and thus us, who would follow suit) were closed through April 20, which was after Pesach. Governor Pritzker also issued a shelter-in-place order for all residents of Illinois lasting through April 7. If we were not essential personnel, we needed to work from home, going out only to get groceries or visit the pharmacy.

In the wider world, coronavirus was affecting people my age and people were becoming critically ill, though not dying. My colleagues at Frisch had colleagues who were our age and hospitalized. This worried me, as this illness had originally been billed as one that only affected the elderly and immunocompromised. I was also reading about restauranteurs who were losing significant portions of their income because Pritzker had restricted their restaurants to offering takeout or delivery only. My husband and I ordered from some restaurants solely to support them during this difficult time. My Grandma, who had originally made plans to spend Pesach in Israel, changed them to come home to Chicago. Then, she decided to change them again, most likely staying in Florida to avoid flying and coming into contact with individuals who might have COVID19 in the airport. More concerning, we had friends who were running out of PPE (personal protective equipment) because lay individuals had made a run on stores and purchase so many n95 masks. Now we had websites like FindTheMasks where people were begging for regular individuals to donate masks to hospitals and medical centers. Instacart and other services that allow for groceries to be delivered to one's home were so overwhelmed by demand that it was impossible to book deliveries for at least a week out.

There were also positives. Facebook groups such as Parenting Under Quarantine and Homeschooling When You Have To cropped up, everyone offering positive feedback, support and tips to one another. The vast majority of EdTech companies expanded their free offerings or started offering full use of their product for free to anyone and any school that had been affected by coronavirus. Schools that were closed, including my children's schools, started sending home links for Zoom meetings so the children could do Tefillah or Asifat Kitah together. They also provided pre-recorded videos and packets so school could continue from the comfort of our homes. At my request, one teacher got my daughter set up with GetEpic so that she could listen to as many audiobooks as her heart desired- for free! People did their best to support their local businesses and bakeries- and bakers got creative. Now that they were no longer providing cakes and cookies to celebrate people's smachot, they decided to provide cupcake-decorating kits or cookie-decorating kits, or, like North Shore, to offer delivery of their products to people's homes.

None of us know how or when this ends. My student started a blog, and made an argument that later made it to the New York Times (albeit written by someone else), that our current solution to coronavirus is worse than the disease. It's going to throw us into an economic recession, and possibly an economic depression. Meanwhile, people are saying we will be home through May, and maybe even through the rest of the academic year. Nobody knows. We are all aiming to keep our spirits up, and hoping for the best outcome possible. Schools are getting creative to help students stay positive - ICJA had a concert this past Friday with Simcha Leiner for exactly that reason. We have more fun online activities in the works as well.

Social distancing, quarantine, the fact that the Javits Center in New York is being eyed to become a field hospital...it's like we are living in a bad dream. I can't help but think about my prayers this past Rosh Hashana, and how I recited Unetaneh Tokef, thinking as I always do about "who will live and who will die." This year is the year where "who by plague" is applicable. But I hope we can find treatments for this illness, and eventually a vaccine as well, and that we will be able to weather the storm and come out more united and connected on the other side.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Intercision

I've been watching the HBO rendition of "His Dark Materials," an adaptation of the series of books written by Phillip Pullman. I've just finished episode 1x05, titled 'The Lost Boy.'

One of the things this adaptation of the series brought to mind was that intercision (or cutting a child apart from their daemon, what we would call our soul) was akin to experiments performed on children during the Holocaust. In the book depiction (which I read when I was much younger) it seemed more similar to castration, or separating a child from their sexuality. In the same way the Church might do that to altar boys to keep them as sopranos (and so that they might remain pure/ untouched by original sin), so too the Magisterium is performing this separation upon children. (The castration comparison also fits the puberty imagery relating to the "change" when one's daemon retains one form forever.)

But the Holocaust imagery is an important and disturbing parallel, and I think the show is right to play up that connection. (Especially as we approach a time where so many do not remember or have forgotten the Holocaust and the scope of the tragedies that occurred during it).

---

One thing the show got wrong- the scene in the books when Tony is found holding the piece of dried fish instead of his soul is one of THE MOST DISTURBING scenes in ALL of children's literature (and I have read a lot of children's literature) and they cut it. This was a mistake. (Screenshot below- click to enlarge- of Lyra understanding the importance of the fish when the adults do not).




Monday, November 11, 2019

To Take, To Grasp, To Lose: David as a Player in a Tale out of Genesis

There once was a king. 

 This king took. 

 He took the woman who revived, aroused, inspired passion in him. 
 He grasped her, kissed her, caressed her. 
 He gave her a child. But then he lost. 
 He lost the child. 
 He lost his other children, too. 
 One to rape. One to fratricide. Two to rebellion. 
 Was it worth what he took? 

 ~
In II Samuel 11, we encounter a story:

ב  וַיְהִי לְעֵת הָעֶרֶב, וַיָּקָם דָּוִד מֵעַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ עַל-גַּג בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ, וַיַּרְא אִשָּׁה רֹחֶצֶת, מֵעַל הַגָּג; וְהָאִשָּׁה, טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד.2 And it came to pass at eventide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.
ג  וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד, וַיִּדְרֹשׁ לָאִשָּׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר, הֲלוֹא-זֹאת בַּת-שֶׁבַע בַּת-אֱלִיעָם--אֵשֶׁת, אוּרִיָּה הַחִתִּי.3 And David sent and inquired after the woman. And one said: 'Is not this Bath-sheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?'
ד  וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד מַלְאָכִים וַיִּקָּחֶהָ, וַתָּבוֹא אֵלָיו וַיִּשְׁכַּב עִמָּהּ, וְהִיא מִתְקַדֶּשֶׁת, מִטֻּמְאָתָהּ; וַתָּשָׁב, אֶל-בֵּיתָהּ.4 And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness; and she returned unto her house.
There were consequences.

י  וְעַתָּה, לֹא-תָסוּר חֶרֶב מִבֵּיתְךָ--עַד-עוֹלָם:  עֵקֶב, כִּי בְזִתָנִי, וַתִּקַּח אֶת-אֵשֶׁת אוּרִיָּה הַחִתִּי, לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה.  {ס}10 Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from thy house; because thou hast despised Me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife. {S}
יא  כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, הִנְנִי מֵקִים עָלֶיךָ רָעָה מִבֵּיתֶךָ, וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶת-נָשֶׁיךָ לְעֵינֶיךָ, וְנָתַתִּי לְרֵעֶיךָ; וְשָׁכַב עִם-נָשֶׁיךָ, לְעֵינֵי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ הַזֹּאת.11 Thus saith the LORD: Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun.
יב  כִּי אַתָּה, עָשִׂיתָ בַסָּתֶר; וַאֲנִי, אֶעֱשֶׂה אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, נֶגֶד כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְנֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.  {ס}12 For thou didst it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.'

I realized that this story- and its consequences- echo those in the Book of Genesis. Now, Genesis is a book dedicated to exploring the need for a sexual ethic, and explaining what ensues when there is no sexual ethic. Without one, men attempt to sodomize other men. Jacob's daughter is raped. Lot and his daughters sleep together. And kings take women who are not theirs. 

It happens multiple times. Pharaoh takes Sarah. Abimelech takes Sarah. The reason the kings do this is because they are playing by the sexual ethics of the time- where to see a beautiful woman is to take her.

In Genesis 12:

יד  וַיְהִי, כְּבוֹא אַבְרָם מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיִּרְאוּ הַמִּצְרִים אֶת-הָאִשָּׁה, כִּי-יָפָה הִוא מְאֹד.14 And it came to pass, that, when Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair.
טו  וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתָהּ שָׂרֵי פַרְעֹה, וַיְהַלְלוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה, בֵּית פַּרְעֹה.15 And the princes of Pharaoh saw her, and praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house.

Then Genesis 20:

ב  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ, אֲחֹתִי הִוא; וַיִּשְׁלַח, אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ גְּרָר, וַיִּקַּח, אֶת-שָׂרָה.2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife: 'She is my sister.' And Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.
ג  וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל-אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, בַּחֲלוֹם הַלָּיְלָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, הִנְּךָ מֵת עַל-הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר-לָקַחְתָּ, וְהִוא, בְּעֻלַת בָּעַל.3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him: 'Behold, thou shalt die, because of the woman whom thou hast taken; for she is a man's wife.'

Each time a king takes a woman, he suffers the consequences.
Pharaoh and his household suffer great plagues.
Abimelech is threatened with death and the death of his entire household.

What is David's punishment?
There are many pieces to it.

It is as though God is saying, "You would like to play by the sexual ethic of the kings in Genesis? Fine. Let's play."

But be aware...you might not like what that means.

Many of the worst Genesis stories are echoed in the fallout from David's actions.

In Genesis, Dina is raped. In David's story, Tamar is raped.
In Genesis, Jacob's sons use trickery to avenge her rape. In David's story, Absalom uses trickery to avenge Tamar's rape.
In Genesis, incest is committed between father and daughter. In David's story, incest is committed between brother and sister.
In Genesis, Joseph's brothers hate him so much that they "cannot speak a kind word to him." In David's story, Absalom hates his brother so much that he cannot speak to him.
In Genesis, Joseph's brothers aim to kill him (although, at the last minute, they do not). In David's story, Absalom kills Amnon.
In Genesis, Jacob loses a beloved son and cannot get over his death. Then, he is threatened with the loss of another son, Benjamin. In David's story, David loses Amnon and eventually loses the beloved Absalom as well.

This is not a coincidence.

It is a direct result of David's choice. He chose to act like a Pharoah. An Abimelech. To live by the sexual ethic of that time.

So God gave him what he wished for. In its entirety.

And so David became a player in a tale out of Genesis.

Friday, September 13, 2019

We, Too, Are YU: How To Support LGBT Individuals in a Halakhic Way

As a proud Stern and Revel alumna, I have been thinking about the upcoming march entitled "We, Too Are YU: Students March for LGBTQ+ Representation." This is an issue I cared about back at YU (I wrote the transcript for the famous panel "Being Gay in the Orthodox World" and had an entire edition of The Observer devoted to Dr. Ladin coming out as trans). It remains an issue I care about because I have friends, former students and students who are members of the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, I teach a unit on secular and traditional Jewish perspectives on the LGBTQ+ movement (which focuses on both traditional and contemporary sources and news articles). Due to all of this, I'd like to look at the causes this group is marching for and consider whether or not they can exist with the halakhic ethos that underpins Yeshiva University and makes it unique.

The following photo was posted in the Yeshiva University College Democrats Facebook group outlining the causes for which this march advocates.


CAUSE 1- "A statement from President Berman condemning homophobic rhetoric of students, rabbis, and faculty on campus. Any instance of homophobia will be investigated by the administration."

I am 100% behind this cause. Believing that halakha forbids a man to have intercourse with or marry another man (and that women are not permitted to perform sexual acts with or marry other women) does not give anyone license to demean, disparage, mock or be cruel to individuals who identify as gay. Similarly, believing that halakha forbids wearing clothing associated with the opposite sex and that GCS (gender confirmation surgery) comes with many halakhic problems, including deliberate sterilization, does not permit someone to demean, disparage, mock or be cruel to individuals who identify as trans.

That having been said, the yeshiva and the university must still be able to teach our traditional and beloved Jewish texts (including those texts that deal with the topic of homosexuality) when giving shiurim without this being termed homophobia. It must be clear that homophobia does not encompass an academic or halakhic discussion of the topic of homosexuality within Judaism.

CAUSE 2- "Events involving LGBTQ+ issues and speakers may not be denied by the Office of Student Life or anyone else on the basis of them being LGBTQ+."

This one is more complicated. I do not know what the current standard for other clubs is, and the protocols that are used when they invite speakers. For example, if a TAC/SOY representative were to invite someone who is known to be an atheist to speak about atheism while advertising that as a Torah event, my assumption is that they would be forbidden to proceed. In such a case, if a speaker is going to come to campus to advocate choices which directly contradict the Torah and rabbinic laws (for example, if Rabbi Steve Greenberg were going to come speak and state that his choices are supported by halakha), that would be equally problematic. If, on the other hand, clubs are permitted to bring in speakers even when they clash with the overall mission of Yeshiva University simply so that diverse viewpoints are presented, then the same permission should be given to individuals who would like to invite someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ to speak about those causes.

CAUSE 3- "An administrator whose job it is to promote diversity and inclusiveness on campus- just as YU's Cardozo School of Law has."

I found this statement about diversity and inclusion on the YU's Cardozo School of Law website. I think diversity is a value and support the desire to build a community that is comprised of "a broad range of perspectives, life experiences and cultural backgrounds." At the same time, Cardozo is different from Yeshiva University in fundamental ways. Cardozo students are law students, learning the same curriculum as those at any other law school. Non-Jewish students and students of all sexual orientations, genders and the like are obviously welcomed to attend. In contrast, Yeshiva University is a private university serving a religious community. Those individuals are mandated to take Judaic Studies in addition to their general studies commitments, and many of them are committed to leading observant lives as well. That is the reason many students choose to attend Yeshiva University as opposed to any other college. I'm all for increasing diversity and wanting to attract students who are Jewish to YU, regardless of sexual orientation. That said, deliberately recruiting trans students would lead to many halakhic challenges (with minyanim, with which school they would attend- Stern or Yeshiva College, with rooming) and I'm not sure they would be best served within the YU environment.

CAUSE 4- "YC and Stern orientations must have a session about tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ+ students, including resources for students identifying with the LGBTQ+ community." 

I 100% agree that YC and Stern orientations must have a session about tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ+ students. There is far too much ignorance in the Orthodox world about what sexual orientation means or what gender dysphoria is. Someone who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community deserves to be welcomed, loved and appreciated - even if I as a YU student believe that their choices clash with halakha. That said, I am unclear as to what it means to provide "resources" for students identifying with the LGBTQ+ community. For example, if the suggestion is that YU must refer an individual with gender dysphoria to individuals who will tell them to transition, that is in clear violation of halakha. If "resources" means that there is a support group, trained RAs or counselors available to talk to these students, then I am 100% on board.

CAUSE 5- "YU Students should be allowed to have a Gay-Straight Alliance club on campus. It must be clear that it is a GSA."

I absolutely support individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ having a safe space to meet on campus. That said, this space cannot be identified as a GSA club. It is at odds with halakha and the mission of Yeshiva University. GSA Network defines a GSA in the following way:

"GSA clubs, or GSAs for short, are student-run organizations that unite LGBTQ+ and allied youth to build community and organize around issues impacting them in their schools and communities. GSAs have evolved beyond their traditional role to serve as safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth in middle schools and high schools, and have emerged as vehicles for deep social change related to racial, gender, and educational justice [emph mine].

A growing body of research confirms that the presence of a GSA has a positive and lasting effect on student health, wellness, and academic performance. It can also protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and improve school climates for all students in the long-term."

The difficulty of having a GSA on a religious campus is that the club is no longer there merely to serve as a safe space and support group. The club comes with a focus on "social change related to racial, gender and educational justice." That social change declares that gender is a construct and therefore one can transition between genders, something which traditional Judaism and halakha does not support. It also advocates for acting upon one's sexuality (having a sexual or romantic relationship with a partner of the same gender), which once again, clashes with halakha.

Beyond the causes outlined here, the "We, Too, Are YU" march has been linked by Professor Aaron Koller to a worldview that is at odds with the halakhic perspective. He states, "In a clash between humanity and halakha, opt for humanity, and have enough faith in halakha that the problem will be solved. And if somehow the conflict remains intractable, I would rather suffer for being a good person than sacrifice someone else’s life on the altar of my religiosity."

This approach forgets about God. It places one's own perspective of what is right, true, moral or good above what God wishes from us. It assumes our ever-evolving view of what is humane trumps God's knowledge of what is good for us- beings that S/He created. If Professor Koller is a spokesperson for the "We, Too Are YU" movement - if he is its representative, and personifies the perspective behind it- then it is not a march I would be comfortable attending.

But here is what I absolutely DO support, and believe any person who loves God and halakha should support:

  • A statement from President Berman banning homophobic rhetoric on campus- no matter if it stems from rabbis, teachers or students 
  • Promoting an atmosphere of diversity and inclusiveness
  • YC and Stern orientation sessions teaching about tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ+ identifying students
  • Trained RAs, counselors and others who can offer love and support to LGBTQ+ identifying students
  • A safe space/ club for individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ to gather and find support
There is no question that YU students who identify as LGBTQ+ should be welcomed, assured of their safety, and that fellow students and teachers must show that these members of our YU community, like all other members, are valued and loved. At the same time, it should be clear that loving someone does not mean agreeing with all their choices. 

I love God. I love His Torah. I also love my students who identify as LGBTQ+. For some people, this is a contradiction. It does not have to be. 

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Safeguard My Son: Why Only Judah Can Serve as Benjamin's Protector

A local rabbi asks questions about the parsha (Torah section that is read aloud in synagogue) each week. This week he asked why Jacob was willing to entrust Benjamin to Judah but not to Reuben (see Genesis 42:36-43:1-10).

I felt the answer was obvious; my husband told me to write it up so here goes...

Reuben offers his two sons (Jacob's grandchildren) as sureties. It seems to be his guilt speaking (for he intended to save Joseph but instead is party to causing him to be sold, possibly lost or dead) when he declares:

לז  וַיֹּאמֶר רְאוּבֵן, אֶל-אָבִיו לֵאמֹר, אֶת-שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית, אִם-לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ; תְּנָה אֹתוֹ עַל-יָדִי, וַאֲנִי אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ.37 And Reuben spoke unto his father, saying: 'Thou shalt slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee; deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him back to thee.'

Jacob is disturbed by this offer- these are the grandiose, desperate words of an individual who has not actually suffered child-loss but who is attempting to atone. If one understands the loss of a child (as Jacob has experienced, losing Joseph) they would never make a statement like this. It would be unthinkable.

Judah, in contrast, has lost children. Two of them. And he understands what it is like to withhold a third child out of fear of losing him as well. Indeed, there's a distinct parallel between him and his father, Jacob. In Genesis 38:11 Judah says

יא  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה לְתָמָר כַּלָּתוֹ שְׁבִי אַלְמָנָה בֵית-אָבִיךְ, עַד-יִגְדַּל שֵׁלָה בְנִי--כִּי אָמַר, פֶּן-יָמוּת גַּם-הוּא כְּאֶחָיו; וַתֵּלֶךְ תָּמָר, וַתֵּשֶׁב בֵּית אָבִיהָ.11 Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter-in-law: 'Remain a widow in thy father's house, till Shelah my son be grown up'; for he said: 'Lest he also die, like his brethren.' And Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house.

This echoes Jacob's fear, declared in Genesis 42:36

לו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם, אֹתִי שִׁכַּלְתֶּם:  יוֹסֵף אֵינֶנּוּ, וְשִׁמְעוֹן אֵינֶנּוּ, וְאֶת-בִּנְיָמִן תִּקָּחוּ, עָלַי הָיוּ כֻלָּנָה.36 And Jacob their father said unto them: 'Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away; upon me are all these things come.'


Judah lost two children and sought to protect the third.
Jacob loses two children (Joseph, Simeon) and seeks to protect the third.

And thus, when Judah speaks to Jacob, he comes from a place of understanding and empathy. He understands Jacob because he has lived what has happened to Jacob. Importantly, he has also learned how to take responsibility for his actions- good and ill. As Rabbi Ari Kahn explains, Judah is the one to coldly say "What profit is there in our brother's death?" and to suggest the sale instead. It is therefore unsurprising that his own children show no familial leanings- they do not wish to build a family lest they mar their wife Tamar's beauty and they do not wish to build up their dead brother's legacy through siring a child in his stead. When Judah declares to Tamar, "You are more righteous than me," is is the beginning of an understanding that overall, he has lived his life incorrectly. First, he witnesses the lengths to which she is willing to go to build a family, and feels shamed by his own indifference to his family. Second, the man who coldly weighed the profit in a brother's murder is now willing to step forward to save Tamar from the devouring fire even though she wronged him, deceiving him and now the cause of his public humiliation (the rabbinic equivalent of death). This choice- to put family and life above his personal gratification- is the turning point that will eventually lead him to step forward in Parshat Vayigash and offer himself in place of Benjamin.

And thus it makes sense that Judah declares (Genesis 43:8-9)


ח  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה אֶל-יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו, שִׁלְחָה הַנַּעַר אִתִּי--וְנָקוּמָה וְנֵלֵכָה; וְנִחְיֶה וְלֹא נָמוּת, גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ גַם-אַתָּה גַּם-טַפֵּנוּ.8 And Judah said unto Israel his father: 'Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live, and not die, both we, and thou, and also our little ones.
ט  אָנֹכִי, אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ--מִיָּדִי, תְּבַקְשֶׁנּוּ:  אִם-לֹא הֲבִיאֹתִיו אֵלֶיךָ וְהִצַּגְתִּיו לְפָנֶיךָ, וְחָטָאתִי לְךָ כָּל-הַיָּמִים.9 I will be surety for him; of my hand shalt thou require him; if I bring him not unto thee, and set him before thee, then let me bear the blame for ever.

Let us live and not die- we,  you and our little ones- Judah's focus is on the value of family- all family, no matter whether they profit him or do not profit him.
I will be a surety to him- I have already demonstrated that I will put the life of another above my own, as shown by the episode with Tamar.
Of my hand shall you require him- I, who understands what it is like to lose two children, and who could not bear to part with my third.
If I bring him not to thee and set him not before thee, then let me bear the blame forever- I will know how I have failed you in a way that no other can know. Because I know what it is like for a child- two children- to die, and there is no blame you could apportion to me that would be worse than the blame I would feel if I caused you to lose this child.

Jacob can trust this vow, and so he allows Benjamin to travel with Judah.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

What Moses Can Teach Us About Brett Kavanaugh

The biblical prophet Moses was no stranger to cruel allegations. Slanderous accusations were made about him, the most glaring of which suggested that he was engaging in affairs with married women (see Sanhedrin 110a and various commentaries to Exodus 33:8). What led the nation to believe Moses capable of this kind of infamy? A series of events, all true, but misinterpreted. When the women of the camp were asked to offer up their gold to forge the golden calf, they refused. Yet when Moses asked them to hand over their jewels for the Tabernacle, they did so with alacrity. Naturally, this made their husbands feel insecure and jealous. Whether the women were engaging in a kind of hero-worship or were naturally righteous, the end result was that they paid more heed to Moses' words than the words of their husbands. Additionally, Moses separated from his wife (see interpretations to Numbers 12) with what seemed to others to be superhuman strength; they nastily whispered that he must only have been able to do so because he was conducting a secret affair.

Our tradition asserts that Moses was the most remarkable of men. He was kind, and we are shown many instances in early Exodus that show him defending the helpless, whether Israelite or polytheist. He stayed true to God. He turned down offers where the Creator was willing to elevate him to the highest of status and destroy the wayward Israelite nation. He was dedicated to the people, and despite his errors, most notably at the scene that features the hitting of the rock, he remains an inspiration to us. But even he had allegations made about him. This shows it is possible for allegations to be made about the most upstanding, upright people.

At the same time, when Moses gives his farewell address in the book of Deuteronomy, one of the accomplishments he chooses to home in on regards his appointment of judges. In his words:

ט  וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם, בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר:  לֹא-אוּכַל לְבַדִּי, שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם.9 And I spoke unto you at that time, saying: 'I am not able to bear you myself alone;
י  יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הִרְבָּה אֶתְכֶם; וְהִנְּכֶם הַיּוֹם, כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לָרֹב.10 the LORD your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.--
יא  יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵכֶם, יֹסֵף עֲלֵיכֶם כָּכֶם--אֶלֶף פְּעָמִים; וִיבָרֵךְ אֶתְכֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָכֶם.11 The LORD, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times so many more as ye are, and bless you, as He hath promised you!--
יב  אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם.12 How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?
יג  הָבוּ לָכֶם אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים, וִידֻעִים--לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶם; וַאֲשִׂימֵם, בְּרָאשֵׁיכֶם.13 Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you.

A close reader of the Torah notices something peculiar. In this instance, Moses indicates that judges must have certain qualities. They must be חכמים-wise men. They must be נבונים- understanding. They must be ידעים- full of knowledge. But these are not the qualities that were originally recommended for these arbitrators of justice.

The original qualities can be seen featured in Exodus 18:21, and is suggested by Jethro, Moses's father-in-law and originally, a priest of Midian.

כא  וְאַתָּה תֶחֱזֶה מִכָּל-הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל יִרְאֵי אֱלֹהִים, אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת--שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע; וְשַׂמְתָּ עֲלֵהֶם, שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים, וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת.21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.

Jethro talks of the character traits these men must have. Knowledge is not sufficient. These men must be אנשי חיל- valorous, and able to serve in the post without being intimidated. They must also be יראי אלהים-God fearing. (An interesting note: in the book of Genesis, when there are miscarriages of justice such that women are taken from their protectors, who often claim the title of brother, this demonstrates that the culture was not God-fearing.) They must be אנשי אמת- men of truth; men who find lies and falsehoods or anything that remotely resembles falsehood utterly repugnant. They must be שנאי בצע- those who hate bribes. For those who will understand this reference, they must be men like Ned Stark.

A few verses later, we see who Moses appoints:

כה  וַיִּבְחַר מֹשֶׁה אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל מִכָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם רָאשִׁים עַל-הָעָם--שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת.25 And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.

Why does Moses only end up choosing men who are אנשי חיל but who lack the other qualities? It seems very strange.

There are several interpretations of the episode. Seforno among others suggests that Moses searched in vain to find men who possessed all the admirable qualities laid out by his father-in-law. He simply could not find such people, which is unsurprising, because men of that caliber are rare indeed. The Chizkuni offers another approach which both answers the implicit question raised by the text in Deuteronomy and seems appropriate for the current moment. He writes:
ויבחר משה אנשי חיל, “Moses selected capable men;” the meaning of the words אנשי חיל, is that he selected men whose qualities corresponded to the criteria stipulated by his fatherinlaw, Yitro in verse 21. Moses at least knew beyond doubt who were the wealthy men among the Israelites, and who could therefore be more or less immune to the temptation of bribes. As far as the invisible virtues were concerned that his fatherinlaw had stipulated as criteria for making someone suitable to be a judge, he had to rely on his intuition and G-d’s help. This is why they were not mentioned here, as Moses’ judgment was not based on evidence acceptable in a court of law. Even forty years later when Moses recalls the episode, he speaks only about characteristics which are visible, i.e. possessing insight, displaying wisdom and possessing knowledge, i.e חכמים נבונים, ידועים. (Compare Deuteronomy 1,13) No one, on the other hand, can be sure if his fellow man truly is a G-d fearing person.
No one can truly know whether his fellow man is a God-fearing person. (Recall, as I mentioned earlier, that sexual propriety is aligned with fear of God in the entirety of the Book of Genesis). Thus, at the end of the day, Moses found himself in a position where he needed to judge based on visible virtues - whether a person possesses insight, displays wisdom and possesses knowledge.

But Maimonides tells us the law is stricter than this. He brings up another important point- reputation. In Hilkhot Sanhedrin, Chapter 2, Law 7:
We are not careful to demand that a judge for a court of three possess all these qualities. He must, however, possess seven attributes: wisdom, humility, the fear of God, a loathing for money, a love for truth; he must be a person who is beloved by people at large, and must have a good reputation. 
All of these qualities are mentioned explicitly in the Torah. When relating Moses' statements concerning the appointment of judges, Deuteronomy 1:13 mentions: "Men of wisdom and understanding." This refers to wisdom. 
The verse continues: "Beloved by your tribes." This refers to those who are appreciated by people at large. What will make them beloved by people? Conducting themselves with a favorable eye and a humble spirit, being good company, and speaking and conducting their business with people gently. 
When relating Jethro's advice to Moses to appoint judges, Exodus 18:21 speaks of "men of power." This refers to people who are mighty in their observance of the mitzvot, who are very demanding of themselves, and who overcome their evil inclination until they possess no unfavorable qualities, no trace of an unpleasant reputation, even during their early manhood, they were spoken of highly. The phrase "men of power" also implies that they should have a courageous heart to save an oppressed person from the one oppressing him, as Exodus 2:17 states: "And Moses arose and delivered them." 
Just as we see that Moses was humble; so, too, every judge should be humble. Exodus 18:21 continues: "God-fearing" - the intent is obvious. It mentions: "men who hate profit," i.e., people who do not become overly concerned even about their own money. They do not pursue the accumulation of money, for anyone who is overly concerned about wealth will ultimately be overcome by want. 
The verse continues: "men of truth," i.e., people who pursue justice because of their own inclination; they love truth, hate crime, and flee from all forms of crookedness.
It is possible that Brett Kavanaugh is innocent of everything he is said to have done. As the Chizkuni asserted above, none of us can know who is truly God-fearing, who is truly moral. At this point, however, such a divisive nominee- someone whom half the country believes assaulted a classmate- is not fit for the post. On a biblical level, he cannot be seen as a man of integrity who defends the helpless and oppressed, a man beloved by your tribes. Indeed, in his testimony he himself admitted that he will never be able to recover his reputation- it has been ruined. Most of all, unlike Moses- whom God Himself describes as humble- he is not humble. If Brett Kavanaugh sought to do what was best for the country as opposed to what is best for himself in terms of achieving status and position, he would ask for the President to withdraw him as a candidate (consider Moses' well-loved statement in Exodus 32:32 "Erase me from your book!"). To serve as Justice is to serve the people, and to serve the people is to act with humility and choose their well-being over one's own. Despite the allegations made against Moses, this is something the biblical figure indisputably did, time and time again. Over and over again, when he had to choose between himself and the people's needs, he chose the people. To be a leader and to be a Justice is to some degree, indicated by a willingness to sacrifice. It is a mantle that can only be assumed by someone who is willing to serve and thus someone who is willing to humble himself.

Brett Kavanaugh is not that man.

Monday, August 13, 2018

929-Genesis 21: Hagar, Bilam and Opening One's Eyes

Since I am behind on my learning, I am just going to share a short thought on this perek in an effort to catch up. If anyone's interested in a longer intertextual analysis, feel free to check out this comparison between Abraham and Samuel, both of whom are told to listen to someone else's voice.

Here's my short thought- there are so many layers to our world, and we see so few of them. For example, until van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope, we had no ability to see germs, even though they were always there. 

Similarly, in a scene in this chapter and a scene with the Prophet Bilam, something is there all along, but our protagonists do not see it until God literally opens up their eyes.

Here's the scene with Hagar in Genesis 21:19-

יט  וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹהִים אֶת-עֵינֶיהָ, וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם; וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּא אֶת-הַחֵמֶת, מַיִם, וַתַּשְׁקְ, אֶת-הַנָּעַר.19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.

Similarly with Bilam (whose donkey is capable of seeing the angel even though Bilam himself is incapable of it)- in Numbers 22:31-

לא  וַיְגַל יְהוָה, אֶת-עֵינֵי בִלְעָם, וַיַּרְא אֶת-מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה נִצָּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וְחַרְבּוֹ שְׁלֻפָה בְּיָדוֹ; וַיִּקֹּד וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, לְאַפָּיו.31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.

The Hebrew words are different, and it would be worthwhile to look at a concordance to figure out when the word פקח is typically used as opposed to גלה. Opening is likely different from revealing. But in both scenes, it seems clear that something was there all along (a well, an angel) and it was simply a matter of revealing what was already there to our befuddled protagonists. 

This reminds all of us that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." 

929-Genesis 20: Behold God's Justice- When Men are Angels, Sisters are Wives & Slaves are God's Chosen

When I learned this perek at other times, I typically thought about it through the lens of the individual. I wondered why Abraham would resort to the same ruse that failed in the past, and compared Avimelech's responses to that of Pharaoh. However, this time I came to realize that the placement of this chapter is incredibly important because it is intended to show both Abraham and the reader how God's justice works. 

We see this almost from the get-go. When Avimelech realizes that the woman he has taken is another man's wife, he speaks to God and says (Genesis 20:4)

ד  וַאֲבִימֶלֶךְ, לֹא קָרַב אֵלֶיהָ; וַיֹּאמַר--אֲדֹנָי, הֲגוֹי גַּם-צַדִּיק תַּהֲרֹג.4 Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said: 'LORD, wilt Thou slay even a righteous nation?

There is a very strong echo here to an earlier scene with Abraham. Specifically, it is the scene in which Abraham pleads for Sodom and Gomorrah (Chapter 18).

כג  וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר:  הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע.23 And Abraham drew near, and said: 'Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
כד  אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם, בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר; הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם, לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ.24 Peradventure there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?
כה  חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְ--הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט.25 That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?'

The cry that Abraham espouses- "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" is echoed by Avimelech. "I didn't know," Avimelech claims. "I acted in the innocence of my heart and with clean hands. I ought to be judged fairly!"

(A point of interest is that God agrees that he acted in the innocence of his heart but not with clean hands. That part is omitted from the answering verse.

ה  הֲלֹא הוּא אָמַר-לִי אֲחֹתִי הִוא, וְהִיא-גַם-הִוא אָמְרָה אָחִי הוּא; בְּתָם-לְבָבִי וּבְנִקְיֹן כַּפַּי, עָשִׂיתִי זֹאת.5 Said he not himself unto me: She is my sister? and she, even she herself said: He is my brother. In the simplicity of my heart and the innocency of my hands have I done this.'
ו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים בַּחֲלֹם, גַּם אָנֹכִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי בְתָם-לְבָבְךָ עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת, וָאֶחְשֹׂךְ גַּם-אָנֹכִי אוֹתְךָ, מֵחֲטוֹ-לִי; עַל-כֵּן לֹא-נְתַתִּיךָ, לִנְגֹּעַ אֵלֶיהָ.6 And God said unto him in the dream: 'Yea, I know that in the simplicity of thy heart thou hast done this, and I also withheld thee from sinning against Me. Therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.

Why isn't Abimelech considered to have acted with clean hands?

Rashi comments to this and explains that while it is true Abimelech originally took Sarah innocently, not having known she was another man's wife, it is only Godly intervention that prevents him from consorting with her. As becomes clear later in the chapter, Abimelech and all of his court are stricken with some kind of ailment that stops up women's wombs and renders them infertile (Genesis 20:18).)

Here is the important part. Once Abimelech recognizes that God has brought this plague upon him, he does the right thing and relinquishes Sarah. But not without a parting shot- note the following odd phrase:

וּלְשָׂרָ֣ה אָמַ֗ר הִנֵּ֨ה נָתַ֜תִּי אֶ֤לֶף כֶּ֙סֶף֙ לְאָחִ֔יךְ הִנֵּ֤ה הוּא־לָךְ֙ כְּס֣וּת עֵינַ֔יִם לְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתָּ֑ךְ וְאֵ֥ת כֹּ֖ל וְנֹכָֽחַת׃
And to Sarah he said, “I herewith give your brother a thousand pieces of silver; this will serve you as a covering of the eyes before all who are with you, and you are cleared before everyone.”
There are several different interpretations as to what Avimelech means when he talks about giving Sarah money "as a covering of the eyes" before all who are with you. However, some commentators interpret that Abraham and Sarah blinded Abimelech and kept him from seeing clearly by pretending to be sister and brother. Therefore, an angry Avimelech curses Sarah (see the Torah Temimah) and eventually the curse comes true.

כסות עינים. א"ר יצחק, לעולם אל תהא ברכת הדיוט קלה בעיניך, שהרי אבימלך קלל את שרה ונתקיים בזרעה, שנאמר הנה הוא לך כסות עינים, אמר לה, הואל וכסית ממני שהוא אישך וגרמת לי הצער הזה, יהי רצון שיהיו לך בני כסויי עינים, ונתקיים בזרעה, שנאמר ביצחק (פ' תולדות) ותכהין עיניו מראות י.
(ב"ק צ"ג א')

There is another scene just prior in which blindness was referenced. This is the famous scene where the angels come to Sodom and Gomorah and the members of the city want Lot to give them over to be sodomized. Lot tries to argue with the mob and offers them his virgin daughters in lieu of his guests but the people of Sodom press him and say they will do worse to him. They attempt to break down the door.

Then the angels cause blindness to fall upon every single one of them (which, if we are paralleling our two scenes, would be the equivalent to Avimelech and his entire court being unable to bear children).

This is the moment at which the people of Sodom can choose to see the hand of God at work or choose to refuse it. They can decide to give up on their desire to sodomize the men, recognizing that God (or more precisely, His angels) have forbidden them to do it. This is what Abimelech does in our scene- recognizing that something mysterious and miraculous is in play, he speaks to God, speaks to Abraham, makes reparations to Sarah and relinquishes her.

But this is NOT what the people of Sodom do. They are stubborn and they will refuse to recognize God's intervention- quite literally if it kills them.

יא  וְאֶת-הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר-פֶּתַח הַבַּיִת, הִכּוּ בַּסַּנְוֵרִים, מִקָּטֹן, וְעַד-גָּדוֹל; וַיִּלְאוּ, לִמְצֹא הַפָּתַח.11 And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great; so that they wearied themselves to find the door.

Those three words ought to shock you. When these people are blinded, a completely supernatural event, their reaction is NOT, like Abimelech, to give up on the pursuit. They do not make reparations, pay Lot, pay the guests they have tried to seize (exactly as Abimelech took Sarah)- no, they simply keep on grasping for the door and they only give up when they have literally become so weary that they have to.

It is only AFTER this event that the angels turn to Lot and say

יב  וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים אֶל-לוֹט, עֹד מִי-לְךָ פֹה--חָתָן וּבָנֶיךָ וּבְנֹתֶיךָ, וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ בָּעִיר:  הוֹצֵא, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם.12 And the men said unto Lot: 'Hast thou here any besides? son-in-law, and thy sons, and thy daughters, and whomsoever thou hast in the city; bring them out of the place;
יג  כִּי-מַשְׁחִתִים אֲנַחְנוּ, אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה:  כִּי-גָדְלָה צַעֲקָתָם אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה, וַיְשַׁלְּחֵנוּ יְהוָה לְשַׁחֲתָהּ.13 for we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxed great before the LORD; and the LORD hath sent us to destroy it.'
What then do we learn from this?

We learn that this was actually a test.

Abimelech passed the test but the men of Sodom failed.

Here's the test, in short: Someone who is not quite who you think they are (an angel disguised as a man, a wife who appears merely to be someone's sister) appears in your place of residence. You either take them or try to take them. You are stricken by a mysterious plague (literal blindness or a plague caused by the fact that you were blind to the truth of the situation). Do you recognize God's hand in these events and immediately attempt to make reparations? Or do you deny God's role completely?

If you're Abimelech, you recognize God. Thus, you pass the test. You demonstrate there is at least some fear of God in your land.

If you're the Sodomites, you refuse to recognize God. You fail the test. You and your city are totally destroyed.

Here's why it matters- because Abraham bears witness to it. He sees a situation in which God does allow someone who did wrong but who later made reparations to be saved. Indeed, he is the agent that helps it to happen because he prays on Avimelech's behalf (Genesis 20:17).

Where else do we see someone praying on a monarch's behalf?

It happens with Moses.

Look at Exodus 9:27-30.

כז  וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה, וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם:  יְהוָה, הַצַּדִּיק, וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי, הָרְשָׁעִים.27 And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them: 'I have sinned this time; the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.
כח  הַעְתִּירוּ, אֶל-יְהוָה, וְרַב, מִהְיֹת קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים וּבָרָד; וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶתְכֶם, וְלֹא תֹסִפוּן לַעֲמֹד.28 Entreat the LORD, and let there be enough of these mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer.'
כט  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מֹשֶׁה, כְּצֵאתִי אֶת-הָעִיר, אֶפְרֹשׂ אֶת-כַּפַּי אֶל-יְהוָה; הַקֹּלוֹת יֶחְדָּלוּן, וְהַבָּרָד לֹא יִהְיֶה-עוֹד, לְמַעַן תֵּדַע, כִּי לַיהוָה הָאָרֶץ.29 And Moses said unto him: 'As soon as I am gone out of the city, I will spread forth my hands unto the LORD; the thunders shall cease, neither shall there be any more hail; that thou mayest know that the earth is the LORD'S.
ל  וְאַתָּה, וַעֲבָדֶיךָ:  יָדַעְתִּי--כִּי טֶרֶם תִּירְאוּן, מִפְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים.30 But as for thee and thy servants, I know that ye will not yet fear the LORD God.'--

Notice the echoes going on in this scene. Pharaoh admits that he and his people are wicked while God is righteous and just. It seems like he is going to behave as Abimelech does and finally relinquish the people once and for all (just as Abimelech relinquishes Sarah). But Moses chides him, saying that while he will pray for him he knows that they do not truly fear God. Pharaoh and his countrymen are more similar to the people of Sodom, who will weary themselves trying to keep what they want, than Abimelech, who was willing to give it up eventually.

So what is going on in this perek? This perek is a meditation on God's justice. We learn something about how His justice works. God does not assume that everyone knows and plays by His rules from the beginning. He does, however, insist that once He brings punishment upon them (whether blindness or a plague that causes infertility) they then acknowledge His presence and relinquish what is not theirs (whether it is the men who are really angels, or the sister who is really a wife, or the slaves who are really God's chosen.) If they are willing to do this, He is merciful - as Abraham himself and we as the readers witness in this chapter. If they are unwilling...God has already shown what will happen in His destruction of Sodom.