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Shakespeare and Sodom (Vayera)

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the English language’s greatest writer. Yet he was a notoriously sloppy historian. In Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for instance, Brutus announces that “the clock hath stricken three.” The real Brutus would never have uttered such words, though, because the ancient Romans used sundials to tell time. Another inaccuracy appears in Act 1 of Macbeth, when the Scots refuse to enter into a treaty with the Norwegians unless their king “disburse[s]…/ ten thousand dollars to our general use.” Since Macbeth reigned in the eleventh century, the mention of “dollars” is clearly out of place here. References to “billiards” in Antony and Cleopatra and to “guns” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are problematic for similar reasons. Nor do allusions to Niccolò Machiavelli, in King Henry IV, or to Aristotle, in Troilus and Cressida, make much sense either; Machiavelli was still an infant, and Aristotle was not yet born, at the time that these plays are set.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Now Shakespeare knew all this, of course. He was well aware that the Romans didn’t own clocks and that the Greeks didn’t play billiards.  He pretended that they did, though, when it suited his literary needs. This did not compromise the quality of his work. As a playwright, Shakespeare’s goal was to produce a composition, not a chronicle. Hence, he saw no problem introducing anachronisms—objects or practices attributed to a period other than the one in which it actually existed—into his scripts. If Shakespeare felt that he had to take liberties with the facts in order to best develop his plot or his characters, then he exercised artistic license without thinking twice. His dramas were always enriched as a result.

The notion that an author might choose to defy chronology so as to enhance the thematic meaning(s) communicated by his text is one that the Jewish scholars of scripture fully embraced. That is what is meant by the phrase “אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה”—“in the Torah, there is no ‘earlier’ or ‘later.’”  Rashi, in particular, frequently invokes this principle in his commentary on the Torah. For example, he argues that the passages which record the birth of Noah’s children, the construction of the Tabernacle, and the guidelines of the Pascal sacrifice, all occur out-of-sequence in the biblical narrative (see Gen. 6:3; Exod. 31:18; Num. 9:1). In each of these instances, Rashi’s interpretation serves some didactic end, without sacrificing the text’s logistical coherence: he reorganizes a series of events in an intelligible manner, and he—or his supercommentaries—also identifies the pedagogical considerations which may have motivated the Torah to present those events in an order different than the one in which they actually unfolded.

Occasionally, however, Rashi’s nonlinear approach to reading Tanakh seems to create more complications than it resolves. Our Torah portion provides an instructive case-in-point. Before destroying Sodom, a city of evildoers, Hashem sends two angels to Lot, Abraham’s nephew, warning him to flee. Lot invites these angels into his home and treats them to a feast of “unleavened bread”—i.e., matzah (Gen. 19:3). Based on this detail, Rashi infers: “‘He baked matzah’—because it was Passover” (ad. loc.)

Rashi’s remark is most perplexing. On Passover we celebrate the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian bondage; Lot lived several hundred years before the Israelites were even enslaved. Are we to believe, then, that Lot commemorated the exodus prior to its taking place? While certain mystics do indeed adopt this view, rationalists might be more inclined to understand Rashi’s comment allegorically. On this reading, Lot did not literally observe Passover in Sodom—that would be impossible. Rather, the relationship between Lot and Passover is symbolic.

There are, after all, profound parallels between Israel’s exodus from Egypt and Lot’s “exodus” from Sodom. Consider:

  • At the beginning of the Lot narrative, the Torah itself explicitly compares Sodom to Egypt: “And Lot raised his eyes, and he saw that the entire plain of the Jordan [i.e. the region in which Sodom was situation] was well-watered. This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. It like the garden of the Lord—like the land of Egypt—all the way to Zoar” (Gen. 13:10).
  • It is the “outcry” (ז.ע.ק) of the oppressed that causes Hashem to take note of the injustices perpetuated by the citizens of both Sodom (Gen. 18:6) and Egypt (Exod. 2:23). Each “exodus” is thus set against a mood of general unrest.
  • In both texts, the motif of “crying”—literally, “yelling” or “shouting”—is then reemphasized within the body of the narrative itself. In Sodom, the angels report that the “great shout” (צעקה גדולה) of the city has reached heaven (Gen. 19:13). In Egypt, there is a “great shout” (צעקה גדולה) on the night of the Israelites’ escape, following the plague of the firstborn (Exod. 12:30).
  • Amid this climate of chaos and confusion, protagonists in both narratives curiously choose to sit down for a lengthy repast. On the eve of Sodom’s destruction, Lot and his “household” (בית) partake in a feast (Gen. 19:3); on the eve of Egypt’s destruction, the Israelites gather by “households” (בית) to eat the Pascal lamb (Exod. 12:3;8-11). Whether marked by the intimacy of a social gathering, as in the case of Lot, or with ceremony and ritual, as in the case of the Passover sacrifice, these meals provide a sense of relative tranquility that contrasts starkly with the upheaval outside.
  • In fact, both texts highlight the dichotomy through explicit symbols; in both narratives, a physical barrier separates and shields those who are inside from those who are outside. Lot’s neighbors try to harm him by breaking down his “door,” but the angels seal it shut (Gen. 19:9-11). Hashem smites the Egyptian firstborns but passes over the “entrances” of the Israelite dwellings, because their “doorposts” and “lintels” are marked with blood (Exod. 12:23).
  • Then, the illusion of security is suddenly shattered—both Lot’s family and the Israeli in Egypt find themselves urged to flee on a moment’s notice. The angels “press” (ח.ז.ק) Lot to leave Sodom (Gen. 19:16) and the Egyptians “press” (ח.ז.ק) the Israelites to leave Egypt (Exod. 12:13).
  • Yet both Lot and the Israelites appear to freeze for a moment before ultimately claiming their freedom. Lot “tarries/delays” (ויתמהמה) before departing from Sodom (Gen. 19:16). The Israelites, for their part, do not “tarry/delay” (להתמהמה) before departing from Egypt. However, the text qualifies: “they could not do so, for they were expelled by the Egyptians” (Exod. 12:39). This verse seems to imply that had it been possible to “delay” their departure, the Israelites would have attempted to.
  • Both Lot and the Israelites are led to safety by way of detour, because the journey leaves them frightened and frail. Lot was originally supposed to flee to the mountains, but he does not want to venture that far, “lest the evil overtake me and I die” (Gen. 19:19). The angels therefore grant him permission to take refuge in a city which is “nearby” (קרבה) instead (Gen. 19:20). The Israelites, by contrast, were supposed to take the “nearby” (קרוב) route when leaving Egypt—i.e., by the land of the Philistines (Exod. 13:17). Hashem ultimately led them in a different direction, however, “lest the people regret reconsider when confronted by war, and return to Egypt” (Exod. 13:18).
  • Near the end of the Lot narrative, the text reveals that Lot was rescued from Sodom because “God had remembered Abraham” (ויזכר אלוקים את אברהם), Lot’s uncle (Gen. 19:29). Likewise, the narrative of the exodus from Egypt begins when “God remembered His covenant with Abraham” (ויזכר אלוקים את בריתו את אברהם), the forefather of the Israelites (Exod. 2:24).

Rashi

When we compare Lot’s exodus from Sodom with the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt—as Rashi hints that we should—we notice many similarities between the details of the two narratives. What is the broader significance of this connection? In fact, its implications for us are manifold:

(1): “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances…” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII).

Near the end of his life, Moshe turns to the Israelites and presents them with a challenge:

Inquire now regarding the early days that were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from one end of the heavens to the other end of the heavens: was there ever before anything this great, or was the likes of it heard…? Has God ever before performed miracles to come and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, with trials, with signs, and with wonders, and with war and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesome deeds, as all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? (Deut. 4:32-34).

In this passage, Moshe points to the origins of the Israelite nation as proof of its special status in the cosmic order. The manner of Israel’s birth, he observes—the way in which “God took for Himself a nation from the midst of another nation” with “great and awesome deeds”—is unnatural and unique.

Yet it is not entirely unprecedented. After all, there is another group of biblical characters whom “God took from the midst of another nation” with “great and awesome deeds:” Lot, his sons, and his daughters. Moreover, those who study that story through to the end discover that it is not simply the story of one family. It is primarily an etiological account, whose purpose is to inform us about how two prominent Ancient Near Eastern nations came to be:

And Lot went up from Zoar, and he dwelt in the mountain, and his two daughters were with him, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar; so he dwelt in a cave, he and his two daughters. And the elder said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man on earth to come upon us, as is the custom of all the earth. Come, let us give our father wine to drink, and let us lie with him, and let us bring to life seed from our father…” And Lot’s two daughters conceived from their father. And the elder bore a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of [the people of] Moab until this day. And the younger, she too bore a son, and she named him Ben-Ami; he is the father of the people of Ammon until this day (Gen. 19:30-38).

The narrative of Lot’s exodus from Sodom does not conclude, as might have expected it to, when Lot and his family arrive safely in Zoar. Instead it culminates with the birth of Moab and Ben-Ami, the eponymous ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites. That the tale of these nations’ origins bears such uncanny resemblance to the tale of Israel’s origins suggests a radical conclusion—namely, that divine intervention is universal. All the world’s a stage; all people have a role to play in the drama of human history. Both Jews and non-Jews are members of God’s “cast,” as it were. If even one of us misses our lines, then the show cannot go on.

(2): “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (Hamlet, Act II Scene II).

Notwithstanding its universal undertones, however, the story of Lot’s exodus from Sodom also fits into the grander narrative of Jewish particularism. Lot, the text reminds us, is rescued in the merit of Abraham. His survival is necessitated not only by Hashem’s overall concern for His creatures, but also because it is through Lot’s offspring that Israel’s national potential will ultimately be realized. Thus we read in the final chapter of the biblical book of Ruth:

And Boaz said to the elders and to the entire people, “You are witnesses today that… Ruth the Moabitess, Mahlon’s wife, have I acquired for myself for a wife, to preserve the name of the deceased on his heritage, so that the name of the deceased not be obliterated from his brethren and from the gate of his place. You are witnesses today. And all the people who were in the gate and the elders replied, “[We are] witnesses! May the Lord make the woman who is entering your house like Rachel and like Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel, and prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. And may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, with the seed that the Lord will give you from this maiden.” And Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he was intimate with her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. And the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the Lord, Who did not deprive you of a redeemer today; and may his name be famous in Israel…” And the women neighbors gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi,” and they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David (Ruth 4:5-17).

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), John Martin

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), John Martin

As this passage recounts, the genealogy of King David runs through Moab, via Ruth. In Tanakh, the Davidic dynasty is associated not only with the monarchy of Judah, but also with Judah’s eschatological aspirations—thus, for instance, we refer to Judah’s redeemer as “Messiah, the son of David.” And behind it all stands a man named Lot. Cast in these terms, Lot’s exodus from Sodom constitutes but one more chapter in the story of the Jewish people’s covenantal destiny. Its parallels with Israel’s exodus from Egypt communicate the subtle message that all human activity points in the direction of Israel’s redemption, one way or another. Even those events which seem on their surface to be entirely unrelated from this end will, in the final analysis, contribute towards its arrival.

(3): “Keep in-a-door, and thou shalt have more than two tens to a score” (King Lear, Act I Scene IV).

Whether we understand the parallels between Lot’s exodus and Israel’s exodus in a particularistic manner, or whether we understand them more universally—and, on some level, both interpretations are valid—there are lessons to be drawn from these stories that take us beyond questions of particularism vs. universalism. It is by no accident, for instance, that both Lot’s family and the Israelites spend the eve of their redemption inside the house with their loved ones as the masses outside descend into pandemonium. To be sure, we have much to learn from our neighbors, and much to give to them as well; citizenship is a value, and engaging meaningfully with those beyond our “four walls” is something we must strive for. On the other hand, each family, if it is to retain its identity, must set clear boundaries between itself and its surrounding culture. Not every idea peddled in the street deserves to enter the home. Sometimes, popular attitudes and practices are harmful, destructive, or simply unethical; to protect ourselves from their influence, it may be necessary to “shut the door.”

(4): “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries… And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures” (Julius Caesar, Act IV Scene III).

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” writes Maria in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. At the moment of their respective “exoduses,” Lot and the Israelites fall into the last of these three categories. These protagonists are expected to claim their destiny on a moment’s notice. It all happens so suddenly; understandably, they are tempted to “tarry.” But as the Duke of Anijou cautions in Henry VI, “delays have dangerous ends.” The men and women who changed history for the better achieved what they did because they recognized opportunity when it came knocking. They knew how to act when circumstances called upon them to do so; they made their motto (to borrow from the title of Shakespeare’s poem), carpe diem—seize the day. Or, as Hillel put it in the Mishna: “If not now, when?” (Avot 1:14). Good things may come to those who wait; great things come to those who make them happen.

(5): “The course of true life never did run smooth” (cf. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act I Scene I).

Neither Lot nor the Israelites take the “obvious path” to freedom. Lot settles in Zoar instead of heading for the hills; the Israelites loop around the Sea of Reeds instead of travelling through Philistia. Indeed, the road to redemption is often circuitous. Rarely do we reach our destination easily; inevitably, we encounter obstacles, pit-stops, detours, and U-turns along the way. That is how life works, and it is cause for optimism, not discouragement, so long as we remember that Hashem is always there guiding us, as He was for our ancestors.

Shabbat shalom!


Note: When I was showing the first draft of this essay to a friend, he pointed out to me that R. Yoel Bin-Nun published an essay on the Virtual Beit Midrash which identifies several of the parallels between “Lot’s exodus” from Sodom and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt that are discussed in this essay. ברוך שכיוונתי!


3 Comments

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thanks Alex, Shabbat Shalom!

  2. This was brilliant! Loved it, and plan to share it with my rabbinical students at Hebrew College.
    Yours,
    Rachel Adelman

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