No place for denial in Jewish community
This week’s parasha continues the story of Abraham and Sarah that we began reading last week. We read about Abraham welcoming three travelers — angels who tell Abraham that his 90-year-old wife will bear him a son. Following this good news, God tells Abraham that He has decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham challenges God — “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” He then bargains with God, who promises not to destroy the cities if 50, 45, 40, 30, 20, even 10 righteous people can be found there. But there are not even 10.
Two angels arrive in Sodom and are greeted by Lot. The angels urge Lot and his family to flee. They leave, but Lot’s wife disobeys the instructions not to look back and is turned into a pillar of salt.
And then we come to one of those stories you definitely did not learn in Hebrew school. After the death of Lot’s wife, Lot and his daughters flee to the mountains and take up residence in a cave. And having witnessed the destruction of the cities of the plain, Lot’s daughters apparently believe the devastation has been universal. The two girls therefore devise a plan to get their father drunk and engage in incestuous unions with him so that they can preserve human life on earth. Their plan works, and each one bears a son, the founders of the nations of Ammon and Moab.
Immediately after this episode, the Torah says, “Abraham journeyed from there to the region of the Negev and settled between Kadesh and Shur.” Rashi explains: He left in order to distance himself from Lot, who had acquired a bad reputation because of his daughters.
Now this is a wonderfully ambiguous statement. Mei Marom (Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop, 1883-1951, Israel) wrote: “It would appear that by his action Abraham wished to implant in our heart shame of sin, for all would say that it was because of his sense of shame that he moved to another country. Indeed, even though Abraham did not have to do so, he nevertheless did it to teach everyone the importance of feeling ashamed of sin.”
In other words, Abraham wanted to isolate himself from the possibility of being drawn into his nephew’s immoral behavior or even giving the impression that he condoned it.
However, we can also understand Abraham’s action as a form of denial. He didn’t want to know about what happened, he didn’t want to admit that something so terrible could happen in his family, and, most of all, he didn’t want to have to do anything about it.
Perhaps he believed that things like this don’t happen in nice Jewish families. But, sadly, that’s not true. The Jewish community is not exempt from the sexual abuse of children, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, and all the terrible things that occur in our society. Denial simply makes things worse. Imagine a woman who has heard all her life that Jewish men don’t beat their wives and is then hit by her husband. Surely she would think that it was her fault, that she must have deserved it. We need to let victims, people who need help, and witnesses know that if they come forward they will be taken seriously and not dismissed because “everybody knows that Jews don’t do that.”
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.