SODOM, NINEVEH, GAZA
“Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25)
We are known as the people Israel, a term that literally means “wrestles with God.” This week’s portion contains the classic story of our father Abraham arguing with God. God wants to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. Abraham challenges God. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly.”
Abraham asks God to spare the cities if they can find 50 righteous people. God agrees to spare the cities for the sake of the 50. Then Abraham says, what about 45 righteous people? God agrees to 45. Abraham continues to bargain God down. 40, 30, 20, 10 righteous people. God agrees to spare the city for the sake of a minyan, ten people. But in the end, there are not even 10 people worthy of saving the cities. Only Abraham’s nephew Lot and his two daughters will be saved. (Lot’s wife looks backwards and turns into a pillar of salt.)
What intrigues me about the story is that God is held to a standard of justice. God must act according to a pre-existing ethical standard. Philosophers argue whether ethics exist independent of God. The great Russian novelist Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov taught that there are no standards of good and evil independent of God. “Without God, everything is permissible.” The story of Abraham seems to disprove Dostoevsky’s claim. There are standards of right or wrong, a sense of justice, and even God is bound by those standards.
The entire story hearkens to a later story that we read Yom Kippur afternoon. The city of Nineveh is evil, and God tells the prophet Jonah to warn the city to change its ways. If not, God will destroy the city. Jonah, instead of warning the city, flees on a ship to Tarshish. Most of us know the story. Jonah is thrown overboard, then swallowed by a giant fish. He was the first swallowed by a whale, long before Pinocchio. In the end, Jonah preaches to Nineveh, they change their evil ways, and God chooses to save them. Of course, this disturbs Jonah who believes that Nineveh deserves destruction. The story is a powerful statement about the power of an entire city changing its ways, and a reluctant prophet who flees from his obligations.
We have two communities worthy of destruction. Sodom and Gomorrah cannot even find ten righteous people to save the cities. Nineveh changes its ways to save itself. How can we apply these ideas to our contemporary situation in Gaza? Hamas, who took over the government of Gaza since 2007, is committed to the total destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews. On October 7, as Israel was celebrating the festival of Simchat Torah, terrorists poured into Israel from Gaza, murdering over 1200 Israelis and kidnapping over 200. Gaza is a place where evil dwells.
Are there righteous people in Gaza? Of course, probably the vast majority. But they are victims of their Hamas rulers, who conduct military operations from the midst of civilian population centers. As someone put it very succinctly, “Israel uses missiles to protect its population, Hamas uses its population to protect its missiles.” The sadness of the situation in Gaza is that decent, innocent people will suffer for the sins of their political leaders.
Will Hamas change its ways? Its leadership has made it clear that it is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, and its actions October 7 served as proof. Gaza is not Nineveh. Sadly, Israel will do what is necessary to protect its people. But what about justice?
Few countries have tried harder to avoid civilian casualties in times of war. There is an entire principle used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) called tohar haneshek “purity of arms.” Every effort must be made to minimize civilian casualties while achieving a military objective. Sadly, this is extremely difficult in Gaza.
We learn from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the story of Nineveh that there is evil in the world. Such evil existed not only in Biblical times but in our own day. The challenge is how to deal with that evil while maintaining our sense of justice.