By Dr. Yael Ziegler
Sodom is the Bible’s model of how not to build a society. Though it is prosperous and tranquil, these advantages do not foster generosity or consideration for the less fortunate (Yechezkel 16:49). In fact, it is entirely devoid of morality. When the Sodomites gather to rape Lot’s guests and Lot attempts to deflect them, their response reveals their disdain for justice, mishpat: “Has one come here to live and he dares to judge (“va’yishpot shafot”)?” (Bereishit 19:4–5). Less than ten righteous people dwell in Sodom, sealing its fate. G-d overturns Sodom, whose ruins are strewn with salt so that nothing can grow there again (Devarim 29:22). As far as the Torah is concerned, Sodom can produce nothing of value for the world.
In spite of Sodom’s corruption, it is difficult for Lot and his family to leave. Prior to its destruction, Sodom is a place of lush, verdant fields, watered by the Jordan and reminiscent of Egypt and the Garden of Eden (Bereishit 13:10). When the angels attempt to rush Lot out of the city, explaining that the destruction is imminent, Lot hesitates (“va’yitmahma”), causing the angels to grab him and his family (“va’yachaziku”) and whisk them out of the doomed city. The angels direct Lot and his family to head for the mountains and refrain from looking back. They must sever their connection to the city, which is redolent of Canaan’s immoral past but not part of Avraham’s vision for a future society steeped in righteousness.
Lot’s wife cannot resist temptation. Looking back (longingly?) at her beloved and affluent city, she is absorbed into the city’s destruction, turning into a pillar of salt. The message seems clear: if you cannot sever your connection to the sinful city and its corruptions, your fate will be theirs.
A similar idea accompanies the Exodus from Egypt. Egypt is a place of slavery and injustice. The squabbling Hebrews who defy Moshe’s attempt to correct their behavior disdainfully retort: “Who made you an officer and a judge (“shofet”) among us?” There is no room for justice in Egypt, where cruelty is rampant. Unsurprisingly, G-d sentences Egypt to destruction. The ten plagues devastate Egypt, leaving it in a state of ruin. Israel must leave the moral wasteland and head toward Eretz Yisrael, where they will have the opportunity to build a different society, not tainted by Egypt’s culture of oppression.
Israel’s departure from Egypt linguistically recalls Lot’s departure from Sodom. Instead of angels, Pharaoh calls upon the nation’s leaders, rushing them (“kumu tze’u”) to exit Egypt. The nation appears reluctant to leave a prosperous country, which never lacks for abundant food. Although the verse explicitly states that the nation does not hesitate (“lo yachlu le’hitmameiah”), it appears that this is only because the Egyptians forcefully expel them, grabbing them (“va’techazak”) and hurriedly ejecting them from the land.
At this point, Israel should turn their back on Egypt and not look back. Egypt deprived the Israelites of their freedom and fostered a society of oppression and injustice. The nation of Israel must look ahead toward a new future, toward the construction of a just society.
Unfortunately, Israel makes the mistake of Lot’s wife. Throughout the period in the desert, Israel looks longingly back at the wealthy Egypt, nostalgically yearning for its culinary delights and bountiful food. Like Lot’s wife, this generation of Israelites cannot sever itself from the luxuriant culture of the past, no matter how corrupt. Therefore, this generation will die in the desert, absorbed into its sands, denied the opportunity to shape the future.
Israel’s goal is to build a society that is the diametrical opposite of Sodom and Egypt. In contrast to Sodom, which has nothing to contribute to the world, G-d assigns the nation of Israel a sublime task. Israel must construct an ethical society, one that spreads spiritual and moral values in the world. Filling Jerusalem with righteousness (Yeshayahu 1:21; 33:5), G-d instructs Israel to be a light unto the nations, radiating G-d’s truth and offering the world a promising vision of a future characterized by peace, kindness, and justice.
Dr. Yael Ziegler is a lecturer in Bible at Herzog Academic College and at Matan Jerusalem. She is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau (Mizrachi.org/speakers).