As Moshe nears the end of his life, he establishes a covenant between God and the Jewish people. In a terrifying description, he declares that if God will punish the Jewish people, it would look like the destruction of Sedom and Amorah. These images bring to mind the paradigmatic case of God’s deconstruction of evil, absolute evil. Why invoke these images? Are the Jews really going to reach that level?
The Seforno suggests that the magnitude of the destruction must be such that no one will mistake it for chance. The message of the punishment would be lost if people could mistake the punishment for anything but the hand of God. For the Seforno, the invocation of this image seems almost accidental.
However, Yeshayahu employs similar rhetoric. When describing the destruction of Israel, he notes that God had almost destroyed the Jews totally, but held back in his mercy: “Had not the LORD of Hosts Left us some survivors, We should be like Sodom, another Amorah.” (Yeshayahu 1:9) Yeshayahu, however, seems to use this language to indicate that the punishment would be similar because the sins were similar as well. Thus, in the next verse he warns them “Hear the word of the LORD, You chieftains of Sodom; Give ear to our God’s instruction, You folk of Amorah!” (1:10)
In the case of Yeshayahu, the prophet emphasizes that the sins of the Jewish people paralleled those of Sedom. He accuses them of failing to pursue justice and taking advantage of the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Thus, the connection between the punishment of the Jews and that of Sedom is understandable - they sinned similarly and thus faced the same consequences.
However, in our Parsha, the sins of the Jewish people are not universal crimes, they are particularistic. They are accused of rejecting the covenant with God, of worshiping idols, and the like. These are not the crimes attributed to Sedom, neither in the Torah itself nor the Midrashim. Why then, is the image of Sedom invoked?
It seems that the purpose of this image is to prevent the Jews from dangerously thinking in categories of privilege rather than responsibility. As the Jews enter the Land of Israel, as God promises to miraculously drive out other nations before them, the Jews run the risk of believing that the nations in the land are intrinsically unworthy, and they, the Jews, and inherently better. Thus, they might believe that even if they sin, God would never take the land away from them. However, in Moshe’s speeches throughout Devarim, he constantly warns them not to fall into this trap. God will take them into the land to fulfil his promise to the avot (Devarim 7), not because of the greatness of the Jews. He warns them to not interpret their success as personal greatness devoid of God's aid. (Devarim 8:17)
Even if the Jewish people are indeed special, as Yeshayahu implies by saying that they deserve to be like Sedom, but God’s relationship with the Jewish people will prevent Him from completely carrying out such extreme punishment, that is not the way the Jews should think. They should focus on their uniqueness being due to the responsibilities that they have accepted, the commitments Moshe outlines in our chapter. To drive this point home, God scares them by saying that they could become Sedom. Sedom was the example of people who did not deserve the blessings of the land of Israel and were thus expunged. By using this image, God is telling the Jews that in principle, if they fail to live up to their responsibilities, they could become as undeserving of their relationship with God as Sedom. They could also lose the land of Israel.
The image is harsh, but critical. By telling the Jewish people that they could become Sedom, Moshe is trying to ensure that they will never rest on their laurels. While not denying their uniqueness, he tries to remind them that if they are not careful, they could become as bad as the paradigmatic anti-Jewish cities. The challenge he lays before them, and us, is not to rely on our uniqueness, but to live lives in which we deserve that special status that we have been granted.
- Ben Ish Hai - P’ Nitzavim (22-25) - “Aseret Yemei Teshuva”
- Rabbi Mordechai Benhaim
- Venue: Congregation Shaare Emunah (Sephardic Congregation of the 5T) Holidays:Machshava:
- Duration: 23 min