Thursday, August 09, 2018

929- Genesis 19: Family Values

I've written about Lot at various points on my blog.

One piece is about how we actually ought to have a great deal of respect for the daughters of Lot.

Another compares Lot and Noah's responses to what they perceived as the end of the world.

But I listened to Rabbi Alex Israel of TanachStudy on this chapter, and the part that was new to me had to do with the dissimilarity between Abraham's hospitality and Lot's hospitality. Rabbi Israel reads the two stories as foils for one another (much as Hamlet and Laertes are foils, for example).

When it comes to Abraham, the entire family is involved in hospitality. We see that both Abraham and Sarah are working to provide food for the guests. There is even an interpretation of the statement  וַיִּתֵּן אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וַיְמַהֵר, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתוֹ that indicates the na'ar in question was Ishmael, and he too was involved in serving the guests.

In contrast, when it comes to Lot, he alone is involved in seeing to the guests' needs.
ג  וַיִּפְצַר-בָּם מְאֹד--וַיָּסֻרוּ אֵלָיו, וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל-בֵּיתוֹ; וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם מִשְׁתֶּה, וּמַצּוֹת אָפָה וַיֹּאכֵלוּ.3 And he urged them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat.

His wife (and as we find out later, his daughters, his married daughters, his sons-in-law etc) are nowhere to be found. But the main shared responsibility would have rested on his wife, and she's clearly not mentioned when it comes to caring for the guests.

The suggestion is that when it came to Abraham and Sarah, there was a family value of providing sustenance to others. In contrast, Lot alone had this value- it was not something he had successfully imparted to the other members of his family. (My husband made me read part of a book called The Secrets of Happy Families and the author writes about being explicit in one's family values and imparting them not only by modeling but by transparently stating them/ teaching them to one's children. It fits well with the overall idea here.)

Thus, when it comes to Abraham and Sarah, since they had inculcated this family value of giving and sustaining life through offering food, they were blessed with life. In contrast, since Lot's wife did not subscribe to this value at all (and she's the foil to Sarah), she's cursed with death. Rabbi Israel makes the point that salt connotes death. We know that "salting the earth" is a way of symbolically cursing a city and that if enough salt were sown, it would be impossible for anything to grow on that arid land. We have an example of this ritual of salt connoting death in the book of Judges.

מה  וַאֲבִימֶלֶךְ נִלְחָם בָּעִיר, כֹּל הַיּוֹם הַהוּא, וַיִּלְכֹּד אֶת-הָעִיר, וְאֶת-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-בָּהּ הָרָג; וַיִּתֹּץ, אֶת-הָעִיר, וַיִּזְרָעֶהָ, מֶלַח.  {פ}45 And Abimelech fought against the city all that day; and he took the city, and slew the people that were therein; and he beat down the city, and sowed it with salt.

Thus, on a symbolic level, when we say Lot's wife turned to salt, what we mean to say is that she was incapable of giving life (like a salted field). She refused to be hospitable- it was not a value of hers- and so she was judged, measure for measure.

Incidentally, the idea of being kind to strangers or NOT being kind to strangers and then reaping the consequences of one's actions is a major trope in fairy tales and folklore. I can name numerous stories where the theme arises, but the most recent one to come to mind is one I read to my daughter and it's called Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale. In this take on Cinderella, the daughters are not step-siblings and there is no fairy godmother. However, there is a king who can change his form and pretend to be a hungry boy or a wise old woman. He sees how each of the sisters responds to him (and whether or not she shares her food with the hungry boy, for instance) and eventually chooses his queen based on that. It would be interesting to research fairy tales and folklore and see whether this idea of sharing food with strangers and being rewarded for acting in a kind/ hospitable fashion predates the Bible or is mainly seen after the Bible. If it comes after, I think the Abraham-Sarah vs. Lot-Lot's Wife stories are a good first example.

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