Vayeira: Political Capital Wasted on Sodom? - yehoshua steinberg
Article abstract for Parashat Vayeira: The Parashah relates the story of the destruction of the wicked Sodom and Gomorrah. We find Abraham pleading –with astonishing audaciousness- on behalf of the barbarous Sodomoites. What could possibly have motivated him to act so boldly in support of such a villainous place? We believe a hint to the answer may be found by examining the numerous words the Torah uses in describing the destruction of the city. No less than five distinct words are employed to describe its ruin, chief among them the word שחת, used eight separate times. The difference between these words, and the connection between the appearance of שחת here and in conjunction with the sin of the golden calf I believe may provide a hint into the motive behind Abraham's unexpected brazenness. אוּלַי יַחְסְרוּן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם חֲמִשָּׁה הֲתַשְׁחִית בַּחֲמִשָּׁה אֶת כָּל הָעִיר (בראשית יח:כח). What if the fifty righteous people should lack five? Would You destroy (הֲתַשְׁחִית) the entire city because of the five? (Gen. 18: 28). There are eight occurrences of the root שחת in the Torah portion Vayeira, exceeding its incidence in any other Torah portion. What is its meaning? It is also worth noting that besides for שחת, the Torah uses four other words to describe the destruction of Sodom: 1) Lechalotלכלות (to terminate) - see Gen. 18:21. 2) Lespot לספות (to stamp out) - see Gen. 18:23-4; 19:15, 17. 3) Lehamit להמית (to kill) - see Gen. 18:25. 4) Lahafochלהפוך (to overturn) – see Gen. 19:21, 25, 29. Thus, we must try to distinguish between these terms, and understand the message that each of them teaches us. Moreover, perhaps the biggest question we should ask: Why was Abraham so interested in saving the evil inhabitants of Sodom? Let us first examine the root שחת. We find this root in connection with the sin of the Golden Calf: Go, descend - for your people have become corrupt (שִׁחֵת) (Ex. 32:7). Our Sages interpreted the wordשִׁחֵת in the sense of קִלְקוּל (deterioration / spoilage), and in the sense ofחֲבָּלָה (damage / corruption). RSRH, commenting on the phrase, וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ, and the earth had become decadent (Gen. 6:11), points out that קִלְקוּל is an expression of incomplete destruction. The term השחתה takes on this meaning because it is derived from the word שחת, meaning a pit or trap. RSRH makes a similar linkage regarding the phrase,פֶּן תַּשְׁחִתוּן , lest you act corruptly (Deut. 4:16), noting that the root שחת in that verse denotes a spiritual / moral deterioration, for like the descent of the pit, one who falls off of the proper moral path sinks into spiritual decline. We also find the destructive חֲבָּלָה)) aspect of the root שחת in describing the blemish of an animal offering, in the verse, for their corruption (מָשְׁחָתָם) is in them, a blemish is in them (Lev. 22:25). [As explained by Ibn Ezra, its root is שחת, as the letter מ is superfluous.] Ramban explains this connection in his comments to the verse, Their blemish has corrupted His estranged children for Him (Deut. 32:5) - “A blemish is referred to as a 'corruption,'” as it is stated, for their corruption is in them, a blemish is in them… [Thus, our verse] is saying that the blemish of Israel has corrupted for the Rock (i.e., God) His nation and His heritage. To summarize, the early commentators raise several ideas in order to clarify the meaning of the word השחתה. They are: A. spoilage / blemish; B. damage / break; C. decline / descent. We should note that we find similar meanings in other roots containing the letters חת. They are: 1. Shachet שחת (meaning discussed below) - This term has three related meanings: A. pit / trap (a sunken / low location); B) distorted / degenerate / ugly (a decrepit / declining state); C) spoilage (physical or spiritual). 2. Pachat פחת (meaning discussed below) - This term has two related meanings: A) pit / trap (a sunken / low location); B) defect / baseness (feeble / lowly quality). 3. Tachat תחת (meaning discussed below) - This term has three meanings related to the above context, all of which are directly linked to its literal meaning, below / beneath: A) lowliness; B) instead of / in exchange for (as if the potential replacement is sitting beneath the original, ready to replace it at the appropriate time. In this sense, it is similar to the English word “lieu-tenant,” a subsidiary officer who is on call to serve “in lieu of” his superior; C) because / due to (the primary motive, which lies just beneath the surface). 4. Chatam חתם (sign / seal) - A seal is sunken into the wax / lime. It is related to descent in the same way that the Hebrew word טבעת (signet ring) is related to sinking. Also, when part of a signet ring, it serves to leave an indelible and irreversible impression. 5. Chata חתה (rain down) - This is how Yerios Shlomo interprets the term in the verse, for you will(חֹתֶה) rain down coals on his head (Prov. 25:22). Likewise, Midrash Sechel Tov, on the verse, Now Hashem had caused sulfur and fire to rain down upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24), states: “When [God’s] children were hungry, he rained down bread from the heavens, and when the Sodomites revolted [against Him], He rained down ((חתה coals.” 6. Nachet נחת (descent / land / sink) - See Jer. 21:13. 7. Chatan חתן (son-in-law) - Yerios Shlomo (Vol. I: 112, 2) links the terms נחת and חתן as, in his view, both are based on the two-letter root חת. Thus, the term נַחַת רוּחַ denotes calm satisfaction, as the person arrives at a state of peace and settling down. Likewise, a son-in-law is one who “acquires an encampment in the family and settles into it.” In this manner, it is similar to the word שִׁידוּךְ, the betrothal of two people, which is the Aramaic translation of שכך (subsiding) and שקט (calm). 8. Chitat חתת (shattering) - This term can be used both in a physical sense or in an emotional sense. 9. Chatach חתך (cutting) - see Dan. 9:24. 10. Chatar חתר (dig / shatter for some purpose) - see Ex. 24:1. 11. Chataf חתף (seize / capture) - The verbs חתף and חטף have the same meaning, as noted by Ibn Ezra. In his comments to both Job 9:12 and Ex. 7:27, Ibn Ezra seems to equate the verbs חתף and שחת as both referring to capturing in a trap. Thus, it would appear that he understood חתף to mean specifically seizure via trap, in which the seizure is a prelude to destruction. Indeed, we find similarly that Rashi and Ibn Ezra interpret the verse נִלְכַּד בִּשְׁחִיתוֹתָם (Lam. 4:20) as: captured in the pits that they dug. 12. Chatal חתל (repair a rupture / breakage) - Although repairing is the opposite of breaking; many times, words in the Hebrew language that have diametrically opposite meanings have the same root (e.g., שרש, דשן, etc.). This true of the root חתל: a broken bone that is bound with a bandage is concomitantly separated from other objects. Having discussed at length the various meanings of the root שחת and the underlying biliteral חת, let us return to the question regarding the numerous instances of this root in connection with the destruction of Sodom, and how this word differs from the other terms of destruction in the context of that story. It would appear at first glance that all of Abraham’s great efforts to prevent the destruction of Sodom were for naught, for in the end it was utterly destroyed. However, if we analyze more deeply the use of these alternate expressions in Abraham’s “bargaining” with God over Sodom (כלה, תספה, להמית, שחת), a very different picture is revealed to us. 1. God opens His words (informing Abraham about the imminent overturning of Sodom) with the word כָּלָה, a word that denotes the utter elimination of everything contained in the city. This is evident both from Onkelus and Rashi, as well as from Onkelus’ interpretation of other instances of the root כלה in Scripture. 3. However, in his response (Gen. 18:23-24), Abraham uses the expression תִּסְפֶּה, destruction. Although Onkelus translates it here as תשיצי, which is the same “utterly destructive” expression that he uses in the aforementioned instances of כלה, we find other instances of the term in this very portion which Onkelus translates as תלקי, an expression of lashing rather than destruction. As he continues to plead on behalf of Sodom, Abraham changes his word choice yet again, stating, It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to put to death לְהָמִית the righteous along with the wicked (Gen. 18:25). While Onkelus translates here too as לשיצאה, throughout Scripture he translates לְהָמִית as קטלא, which simply means killing. Elsewhere, the word consistently refers to individuals, not to an entire city! 4. Finally, in his closing argument (Gen. 18:28), Abraham alters his wording yet again, this time employing the word הֲתַשְׁחִית. As we have shown above, the root שחת is interpreted by the early commentators as an expression of spoilage and sinking, and it is translated regularly in Aramaic as חבל, an expression of breakage, or shattering (see Targum Yonatan to Isa. 10:27). What does all of this mean? Beyond any doubt, Abraham was fully aware of the extent of the Sodomites' wickedness. It certainly dawned upon him from the very beginning that there might not exist even a single righteous person in Sodom outside of Lot and his family. Abraham's main goal was to lessen and curtail the scope of the punishment, as we shall explain: God provided Abraham with an opening, by stating that He wished to utterly destroy (לְכַלוֹת) the city. Abraham responded in a similar but not identical manner, instead using the root ספה, which can imply a mere lashing (הַלְקָאָה) rather than utter destruction, as per above. Essentially, Abraham toned down the degree of destruction by using a different word than God did. Since God, as it were, was silent and did not respond to this point, Abraham continued to try and temper Sodom’s fate by mentioning the word לְהָמִית a word that relates to individual people (but not to the city as a whole) - in the hopes that God would allow certain individuals to survive. Once again, God did not protest. So Abraham concluded his plea by using the word שחת, a word whose primary meaning does not even denote destruction and elimination at all, but rather spoilage / defect, sinking, and breakage - situations that can be overcome in principle - as long as the location is not obliterated in its entirety. Looking at it from this perspective, Abraham did indeed succeed in his mission. For from the time he began his supplications, the word כלה was no longer used. Although the angels who spoke to Lot did use the word תספה, Onkelus there merely translates it as the far milder תלקי, as we explained above. Perhaps they merely used the word in the context of warning Lot about the imminent doom, so that he would hasten his departure. In any case, the word כלה in the sense of an intense destruction was no longer being used. The destruction of Sodom was now merely described with the words השחתה and הפיכה, overturning (see Gen. 19:21, 19:25, 19:29, Deut. 29:22). Targum Yonatan (to Amos 4:11) describes the מהפכת סדום as the distancing of the Divine Presence, and we also find the term הפיכה interpreted in the sense of withdrawal / setback (see Targum Yonatan and Metz. David to Judg. 20:39). In any case, the site was not totally wiped off the map forever, and some remnant thereof was allowed to remain. This could seemingly be accredited to Abraham and his tireless pleas. Finally, we also asked above: What was Abraham’s motive in pleading for the rescue of the evil Sodomites? Perhaps our Sages provided us with clues to the answer in the Midrashic works that expound on the verse, Go, descend - for your people (שִׁחֵת) have become corrupt (Ex. 32:7): Ex. Rabba (42:1) - “[The term] שִׁחֵת can only mean that they corrupted their deeds.” Tanchuma (Ki Tissa, 20) - "[The term] שִׁחֵת can only mean the spoiling of deeds.” Hence, we see that the sin of the Golden Calf - the greatest sin in the history of the Jewish people - is nonetheless described “merely” by the term השחתה, which denotes spoilage and corruption. How is this possible? The survival of the Jewish people in this incident may also stem from the merit of our Forefather Abraham, who foresaw the future of his own people in his relentless pleas on behalf of the evil Sodomites. When trying to temper God’s response to the Sodomites’ sins, Abraham was also setting a precedent which would tone down His response to the Jews’ later sins. In other words, whatever transgression Israel might commit in the future would surely not rise to the level of the evils of Sodom. Hence, if even Sodom itself was not completely wiped off the face of the earth, and it was “merely” נשחתה, it goes without saying that the Jewish people too deserve to survive forever. God’s description of even the cataclysmic sin of the Golden Calf as שחת therefore serves to reaffirm Israel’s destiny to survive in perpetuity - and the Eternal One of Israel does not lie (I Sam. 15:29)!  תנחומא כי תשא פ' כ - אמר למשה: לֶךְ רֵד כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ (שמ' לב:ז), אין שחת אלא קלקול מעשים, שנאמר: שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא בָּנָיו מוּמָם (דב' לב:ה).  שמות רבה מב:א - אמר למשה: לֶךְ רֵד כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ (שמ' לב:ז), ואין שחת אלא שחבלו מעשיהם, כד"א: שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא בָּנָיו מוּמָם (דב' לב:ה).  יר' ה:כו - הִצִּיבוּ מַשְׁחִית אֲנָשִׁים יִלְכֹּדוּ. יחז' יט:ד - בְּשַׁחְתָּם נִתְפָּשׂ. תה' נה:כד - תּוֹרִדֵם לִבְאֵר שַׁחַת.  רשר"ה בראשית ו:יא - וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ - 'שחת' מורה על קלקול, ולא על השמדה... הוראת היסוד של 'שחת': בור. אולם הכורה שחת איננו מתכוון לטובה... אלא רצונו לתת מכשול לפני ההולך בדרך; רשר"ה דברים ד:טז - פֶּן תַּשְׁחִתוּן - 'שחת' הוא בור, ו'שחת' מציין את השקיעה, את הנפילה מן הדרך המוליכה אל הישע הרוחני.  וי' כב:כה - מָשְׁחָתָם בָּהֶם מוּם בָּם; ת"א - חבולהון בהון מומא בהון. וכן תרגומו של שרש 'שחת' בכל מקום, כגון: בר' ט:יא - וְלֹא יִהְיֶה עוֹד מַבּוּל לְשַׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ; ת"א - ולא יהי עוד טופנא לחבלא ארעא. "חבלה" מתורגמת כשבירה: ישע' י:כז - יָסוּר סֻבֳּלוֹ מֵעַל שִׁכְמֶךָ... וְחֻבַּל עֹל מִפְּנֵי שָׁמֶן; ת"י - תֶּעְדֵי... נִירֵיהּ מֵעַל צַוְרָךְ וְיִתְּבְרוּן עַמְמַיָא מִן קֳדָם מְשִׁיחָא.  מום מציין בדרך כלל פגם וקלקול, אולם מצינו גם מום "חיובי", כמו שאמרו בגמרא: נדר' סו: - קונם שאי את נהנית לי עד שתראי מום יפה שביך; תוס' - מום יפה - כלומר יפה מאום שום דבר יפה, כמו: וּבְכַפַּי דָּבַק מאוּם (איוב לא:ז).  דב' לב:ה - שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא בָּנָיו מוּמָם; רמב"ן - שחת לו לא בניו מומם - המום יקרא השחתה, כמו שנאמר: כִּי מָשְׁחָתָם בָּהֶם מוּם בָּם (וי' כב:כה), וכן: וְזֹבֵחַ מָשְׁחָת לה' (מלאכי א:יד), יאמר כי מומם של ישראל שחת לצור עמו ונחלתו.  תה' צד:יג - עַד יִכָּרֶה לָרָשָׁע שָׁחַת. תה' נה:כד - וְאַתָּה אֱלֹהִים תּוֹרִדֵם לִבְאֵר שַׁחַת.  בר' ו:יב - וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְהִנֵּה נִשְׁחָתָה כִּי הִשְׁחִית כָּל בָּשָׂר אֶת דַּרְכּוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ. שמ' לב:ז - וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֶךְ רֵד כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ.  בר' יח:כח - אוּלַי יַחְסְרוּן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם חֲמִשָּׁה הֲתַשְׁחִית בַּחֲמִשָּׁה אֶת כָּל הָעִיר.  א. ש"ב יז:ט - בְּאַחַת הַפְּחָתִים. שם יח:יז - אֶל הַפַּחַת הַגָּדוֹל.  ויקרא יג:נה - פְּחֶתֶת הִיא.  יהושע טז:ג - בֵּית חוֹרֹן תַּחְתּוֹן. מ"א ו:ו - הַיָּצִיעַ הַתַּחְתֹּנָה. ישע' יד:ט - שְׁאוֹל מִתַּחַת רָגְזָה לְךָ.ישע' יד:יא - תַּחְתֶּיךָ יֻצַּע רִמָּה.  ישע' נה:יג - תַּחַת הַנַּעֲצוּץ. ישע' ס:טו - תַּחַת הֱיוֹתֵךְ עֲזוּבָה וּשְׂנוּאָה. תה' מה:יז - תַּחַת אֲבֹתֶיךָ יִהְיוּ בָנֶיךָ. בר' ל:ב - הֲתַחַת אֱלֹקִים אָנֹכִי.  ש"ב יט:כב - הֲתַחַת זֹאת לֹא יוּמַת שִׁמְעִי. דב' כח:מז - תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָבַדְתָּ.  אסתר ג:יב - וְנֶחְתָּם בְּטַבַּעַת הַמֶּלֶךְ.  משלי כה:כב - כִּי גֶחָלִים אַתָּה חֹתֶה עַל רֹאשׁוֹ; י"ש א:ס,ב (ת"ד) - גֶחָלִים אַתָּה חֹתֶה עַל רֹאשׁוֹ (משלי כה:כב) - הורדה סתם. כך משמע מלשון מדרש שכל טוב לפרשתינו: שכל טוב (בובר) בראשית יט:כד - וה' הִמְטִיר עַל סְדֹם וְעַל עֲמֹרָה גָּפְרִית... כשבאו בניו רעבים המטיר להם לחם מן השמים, וכשמרדו סדומיים חתה עליהם גחלים.  ירמיה כא:יג - מִי יֵחַת עָלֵינוּ; מצ"צ - יחת - ענין ירידה כמו חציך נחתו בי (תהלים לח). תהלים לח:ג - וַתִּנְחַת עָלַי יָדֶךָ; מצ"צ - נחתו, ותנחת - ענין ירידה כמו מי יחת עלינו (ירמיהו כא).