VaYerah – Welcoming All

It cannot be that our empathy ends with those who belong with us, in whatever categories we ourselves happen to belong.  It cannot be that the prerequisite for my empathy is that I share your perspective.

For the past month or so, on the corner of the busiest intersection on the drive to my daughter Yaara’s school, we pass a man sitting at a bus stop shelter. He has long, wavy, black, black hair, and a handsome face.  If it weren’t for the fact that he’s there every morning – if I’d only passed him once – and if it weren’t that the lower half of his body is always wrapped in a sleeping bag, I might have assumed he’s a Stanford graduate student who stayed up too late working on his project.

Each time we pass him, looking miserable in the cold morning air, I shake my head and mutter, “poor guy”, or something like that. It never once occurred to me to stop the car and ask him how he’s doing. Then late last week, I saw he had his legs out of the sleeping bag, and one pant leg was rolled up to his knee.  He was tending to something on his foot, and I could see that his lower leg was red and swollen in a bad way.  Oh my God, I suddenly realized, this man needs help. 

For the first time, I considered stopping the car and asking him if he wanted to connect with resources.  Our friend Dr. Brian Greenberg works for LifeMoves homeless services. Maybe they would be able to help.  Our friend Jessica Donig works for Miracle Messages, a non-profit that reconnects homeless people with their families. My older daughter Shira volunteered with Miracle Messages this summer. Maybe even my daughter could help, if this man has family to connect with.

But I couldn’t stop right then.  My younger daughter, Yaara, was late for school.  And by the time I finished with all the school drop-off procedures he had slipped my mind, and since on the way home I generally take a different route, I didn’t think of him again until I sat down to prepare some thoughts for you about this week’s Torah portion. 

In it we read the story of Sodom and Gomorah.  Two cities that personify evil.  God said about them (chapter 18, verse 20) “Their outrage is so great, and their sin is so grave,” and God informs Abraham that he intends to investigate, and if matters are as they seem the two cities will be destroyed.

But what were the grave sins of Sodom?  Three of God’s angels, disguised as men, visit the city to find out. The first person the angels encounter happens to be Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who invites them to his home.  Quickly an angry mob gathers at Lot’s door.  Chapter 19, verse 5: “Where are those men that came to you tonight!” they demand.  “Toss those foreigners out to us, so we can have our way with them.” 

Good thing those foreigners were angels. They slam the door shut on the mob, and strike them all with blindness.

Building off that scene at Lot’s front door, the ancient rabbinic commentary, called midrash, offers other stories of the exaggerated evils of Sodom. 

Several of these midrashic stories suggest that in Sodom, helping the poor was against the law. They tell of young women who defied the law out of compassion, and were punished.  For example, one midrash tells that Lot’s daughter married a powerful officer of Sodom. On her daily walk to the well to draw water, she would pass a man sitting in the gutter, and she felt sorry for him. She began sneaking food to him in her water bucket. After a time, some of her husband’s colleagues grew suspicious.  Why hadn’t this beggar died already from starvation? They investigated, discovered who had been feeding him, and killed her.

I want to acknowledge Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum, who gathered that set of midrashic stories in a brilliant lecture she gave for the Hartman Institute this summer. Rabbi Tamar observed that in these midrashic stories, Sodom represents the snuffing out of empathy. There is no room for LifeMoves in Sodom. Miracle Messages has no place there. Lot’s daughter saw the beggar on the street and responded, but in Sodom one is not allowed to see another person’s suffering. 

Each time I drove past the man at the bus stop and didn’t even consider stopping, I was – in a VERY small way – expressing the values of Sodom.

There’s another midrash about the cruelties of Sodom, one that picks up particularly on the Xenophobia in the Torah’s original story.  At the gates of the city was placed a bed the length of the average man. Anyone who wished to visit the city was first made to lie down in the bed. If they were shorter than the bed was long, they were put on a rack and stretched.  And if they were longer than the bed, they were mutilated.

Here, the evil of Sodom was that everyone was required to fit into a particular form. Sodom was a wealthy city. If you were poor, you did not belong there. If you were foreign, you did not belong there.  If you didn’t fit the length of the bed, you did not belong.

This take reminds me of something Rabbi Sandra Lawson wrote about herself.  Sandra Lawson is a woman with many labels. She’s a veteran.  A vegan. Lesbian. African-Amercian. And a rabbi. Labels that some people seem to feel don’t belong together.  She wrote:

Upon meeting me, Jews of Ashkenazi descent like to ask me a myriad of  questions, from how are you Jewish, to when did you convert, to don’t you have to be Jewish to go to rabbinical school? These questions never happen in a context of wanting to know me…I often never get to tell my story in a way that feels safe. I am often made to feel like I am expected to rattle off a simple yes or no answer as if anyone’s Jewish story is that simple. All Jewish stories are complex, and personal. 

The evil of Sodom would never have tolerated that kind of complexity, of blending of categories.

But Abraham did not yet know any of these stories of Sodom’s evils, and he had the guts, the chutzpah, to argue Sodom’s case before God. 

Back to chapter 18, verse 24 – What if there are just 50 people in the city who are righteous? He argues. Won’t you save the city for the sake of those 50?  

And God agrees.  If I can find just 50 good people, I will spare the city.

Abraham’s a business man, he knows how to haggle a price down.  What if there are only 45 good people? Really, would you destroy an entire city because of a difference of 5 people.  Again God agrees.  And Abraham keeps negotiating, until God agrees that if they can find just 10 righteous people – 10 tsadikim – in Sodom, the city will be saved. 

We hold this story up as a model for us – to argue with authority, to fight injustice. In verse 25, Abraham demands:  “Will the judge of the land not do justice?”  As Abraham’s spiritual descendants, we, too, must demand justice of whoever is the judge of the land. 

When we hold up this story as a lesson, we usually gloss over the fact that in the end Abaraham failed.  He got his momentary victory. God agreed to the terms of 10 righteous people – but then God’s representative, the angels, failed to find ten.  The city was destroyed. All those people died anyway.  The land became a dead sea of salt. 

That experience, of an apparent victory amounting to zero lasting change, is all too familiar to human rights activists. According to Valarie Kaur, in her wonderful book “See No Stranger”, that’s what happens when we villaonize a few people and focus on changing or removing them, rather than looking to the foundational ills of the entire system.

I’d like to suggest that Abraham’s cause was lost at the outset, because he himself had accepted a piece of Sodom’s values. It was right there in his argument, hidden in plain sight. Abraham did not try to argue, “What if, among all their heinous deeds, you can find just 50 acts of kindness?” He did not say, “What if, amidst all their abusive relationships, you can find just ten relationships based on empathy and acceptance?”  He did not try to remind God that no human story is simple, that each of us carries wounds and blindspots, and that there is also goodness in each of us.  

What he said was – verse 23 – “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”  Two categories of people – righteous and wicked – and the fate of the city depended on their balance.

Abraham had empathy. He was trying to save human life, mostly of people he didn’t even know. But he was thinking of people in categories of us-and-them – Sodomic categories – and so he failed his mission. The answer to his plea came back — “no”.

At some point this past Tuesday night, I was hit full force with an awareness that the answer to my hope might come back as a “no”. That in fact, either way 50% of our country was going to have to endure that kind of no.  Both red and blue, we have been seeing ourselves as fighting for justice. Like Abraham, we have empathy.  Voting is an act of caring, and we had record voter turn out. Americans care. But we have each been villainizing the other side, seeing the political map in terms of wicked and righteous. 

It was a close election, so close as to make it clear that, those who voted for the other side would not just be feeling the normal disappointment that always comes when your team loses.  For many, it will feel like a plea for justice and righteousness, that came back as a devastating “no”. 

I want you to understand this.  Half of our country is going through a deep sense of fear, loss and betrayal that comes from that “no”.

And the side that won has to be able to see their pain. To listen, and understand their perspective.

It cannot be that our empathy ends with those who belong with us, in whatever categories we ourselves happen to belong.  It cannot be that the prerequisite for my empathy is that I share your perspective. We must push our empathy out, past those boundaries.  When it comes to other human beings, we need to be blending our categories, and then maybe melting them away altogether. 

I have one more text, and then one more story, I want to share with you. The text I discovered from that lecture by  Rabbi Tamar. She shared a midrash commenting on a verse from the Song of Songs.  The verse gives voice to the women of Jerusalem – the Israelites, Abraham’s descendants. They have a younger sister who needs help, and they ask “what can we do for our younger sister?” The midrash – shockingly – identifies the younger sister as Sodom.  And what must Abraham’s descendants do for Sodom?  According to this midrash, they must enter the city, and build her anew.  

Listen to Rabbi Tamar’s interpretation of this midrash. She said: “There is an understanding that we can’t give up on anyone, even on Sodom…We will go to every city, every place. Every place where humanity might choose Sodomic language, we will be there…We will do the mitzvah of seeing each other there, of doing good deeds there, and sending lights, and sending breath to each other.  Let us be seen, let us see each other, everywhere we are.”

The final story I want to share with you is of a man named Scott, who used to live under the highway overpass near WIllows market. Our friend Nicole Lance would pass him regularly, whenever she went shopping there.  But unlike me, Nicole did stop. She looked into Scott’s eyes and saw his suffering.  She asked about his story. 

She learned that Scott had been a carpenter. That he had built some of the most beautiful homes in Palo Alto. She learned that he suffered from health problems that eventually prevented him from working with his hands. He lost his livelihood, and then his home.  He never complained to her.  He was just grateful to be able to share his story.

The more Nicole got to know Scott, the more she was impressed with him.  She went beyond empathizing with his pain, and saw him as a person of character and integrity. She wanted to help him, so she asked the manager at the market to keep a tab for Scott. He could buy whatever he wanted, and charge it to her.  She told Scott about the tab, and also gave him clear limits – he was to use no more than a certain amount per week.

One day, it was rainy and cold out, and she saw Scott huddled under his bridge, looking miserable.  “Go inside and get something warm to eat,” she told him.  “Thank you, but no,” he said.  He had already used up his allowance from her for the week, and he refused to take advantage of her generosity.

When Scott died, Nicole tracked down his sister, who was living in Hawaii.  He hadn’t wanted to be in touch while he was alive, perhaps he was too ashamed.  But the sister was so grateful to Nicole to have at least had the opportunity to mourn her brother, and she wrote the most beautiful eulogy for him.

Yesterday afternoon, I made a point of driving by the bus stop, but the man with the long black hair was not there.  I commit to you, if he returns, I will stop and talk to him.

And I ask that you look for opportunities to make a similar commitment.  Next time you are tempted to dismiss someone as “other”, because their social station is that much lower, or higher, than yours, or condemn someone as “other”, because you so profoundly disagree with them – stop, and try instead to listen with empathy. See their wounds. But also see their beauty. Empathize with their pain, and also look for their potential.  This is how we will fulfill the path of justice that Abraham our forefather began so long ago, but could not complete himself.  He left it for us to push forward.