Torah for the Times

Friday, November, 2 2012 - 17 Cheshvan, 5773

Torah Reading: Vayera (Genesis 18:1 - 22:24)
Candle Lighting Time: 5:32 PM

Shabbat ends: 6:32 PM

Three Tiered Tarrying


Taking Lot by the Hand

This week’s parsha chronicles the destruction of the city of Sodom. Only Lot and his immediate family were spared because of their association with Abraham. The Torah then tells us that at dawn the angels sent to destroy the city were pressuring Lot to leave:

“Arise, take your wife and your two daughters who are found, lest you shall be destroyed because of the iniquity of the city.”

Instead of heeding their urgent demand for Lot to leave and the explicit threat that he too might become a victim of Sodom’s destruction, the Torah continues by saying:

“And he tarried.” This forced the angels to literally take Lot and his family by their hands and get them out of the city.


The Hebrew word for “and he tarried” is Vayismahmah. This word is intriguing because of the rare musical note attached to it called shalsheles. The word shalsheles means a chain and indeed the note looks something like a chain and it is chanted in a manner where the reader goes higher and higher no less than three times.

What is the significance of this note and why is it attached to this word in particular?

The obvious answer is that the shalsheles note indicates stretching. And indeed Lot was stretching and procrastinating.

The question now, however, is why did he procrastinate and why does the Torah make a point of emphasizing his tarrying with both the word and its musical note? And why is it indicated specifically by a note that has three twists?

Is it possible that Lot did not really believe the angels that the city would be destroyed? There is precedent for this in an earlier parsha, where Noach was compelled by G‑d to enter the Ark which prompts Rashi’s comment: “Noach was not a firm believer, he believed and didn’t believe the flood would occur.” Now if Noach, who was a perfectly righteous person, had his doubts about the fulfillment of G‑d’s threat to destroy the world, certainly Lot may have had some doubts of his own about the impending disaster in Sodom.

The comparison to Noach, though, is not a good one. Noach was convinced that G‑d, the epitome of kindness, would never destroy His world and that the building of the Ark and the threat of a flood was G‑d’s way of getting people to shape up. It was, therefore, hard for him to believe that G‑d would really destroy the world.

Lot, on the other hand, is never described as a righteous person. He was saved not in his own merit but in the merit of his uncle Abraham. It is more plausible to think that Lot’s tarrying had less to do with his belief in G‑d’s goodness and more about his weaknesses and moral lapses. Moreover, the very fact that he sought to live in the world’s most corrupt city is an indication that he too was far from being a paragon of virtue.

Lot’s Three Fears

A more plausible explanation for Lot’s tardiness is his attachment to his home and the city that kept him and he was loath to abandon it so quickly. He wanted to make the transition gradually. Abrupt changes are difficult for people.

In fact, if we delve more deeply into why people do not change quickly, one can discern three reasons:

(a) There is a certain familiarity and attachment to the place where we live. The Talmud states: “The charm of a place is on its residents.” People develop attachments to their homes and cities.

(b) There is a fear of change no matter how bad the previous situation was. A prisoner may experience fear prior to his release from prison.

(c) There is also a fear of the unknown challenges that the future will bring.

Thus the musical note that accompanies the word “vayismahmah-and he tarried” consists of three twists and turns. There are three hurdles and roadblocks that contributed to Lot’s tarrying.

Lot was comfortable in Sodom. According to Rashi, he was a highly respected member of the community and was appointed to be a judge. He enjoyed great affluence and was welcome in a city that was notorious for its hatred of outsiders. He genuinely took a liking for this horrible place.

Lot was also afraid of change no matter how good the change would be for him. He had to first psychologically prepare himself for the prospect that he was going to a new place.

And thirdly, he was terrified of the future challenges and that he would be judged. Lot feared how he would fare in any place outside of Sodom. Indeed, the Torah tells us as much when it records how Lot begged to be able to stay in the city of Tzoar, a suburb of Sodom that was spared destruction, rather than leave the area entirely.

In this vein, Rashi tells us that Lot was afraid that upon relocating outside of Sodom, people would compare him to his uncle, Abraham.

In Sodom, Lot was a tzadik. Relative to the inhospitable, wicked and, profoundly immoral Sodomites, Lot was a shining star. Once he would leave Sodom, living in the shadow of his righteous uncle Abraham, he would have to change and become a totally different person. That, he was not prepared to do. Lot’s fear was entirely justified.


The Parallel to our Generation

There is a parallel that can be drawn for our own times.

Sodom, with its lack of spirituality, is a metaphor for the state of the world in exile. And though exile conditions vary from one age to another and from one place to another, the common denominator of all aspects of exile is that they compromise our standards of attachment to G‑d and His teachings. The state of Sodom is the lowest point to which exile conditions can take us. And that is one of the dangers of living in exile even in its most benign forms; once we come off the “mountain” we can fall into the abyss.

The Torah tells us that we should never get too comfortable in exile. Moreover, we must endeavor to get out of exile by pleading with and demanding of G‑d to bring Moshiach, by learning Torah, specifically the aspects of Torah that concern the age of Redemption. This knowledge will help us shape and mold a liberated way of thinking and act in a totally G‑dly and selfless manner – a foretaste of the way we will live in the Messianic Age.

However, exile forces counter these three efforts. And as much as we believe that Moshiach’s coming is inevitable, we can still emulate Lot’s three twists alluded to in the word vayismahmah—and he tarried.

First, we feel comfortable in exile. We enjoy the prosperity and even the spiritual opportunities that we have.

Second, we don’t like change. We imagine that the changes of the future will be drastic; totally unfamiliar to us. And even if they are for the good, it is still change. And the prospect of change for many is daunting.

Third, when we live in exile we may look good only as compared to others. In the Messianic Age, we will be living amongst the resurrected righteous people of the past and we fear that we will appear in significant compared to them. Moreover, we often use exile conditions as an excuse for our wanting behavior. Because exile conditions eclipse our ability to excel, even if we barely deserve a passing grade, we are doing well. We might be concerned that in the future we will no longer have the same excuses and we will have to perform on a much higher level.

I Believe, With Perfect Faith, I await

There is one other place where the word yismahmeah is employed. In the Biblical book of Chabakuk, the prophet states: “If he shall tarry, wait for him.” This verse has been incorporated in the Thirteen Principles of Faith many recite daily, based on Maimonides formulation of the basic principles of Judaism, which declares:

“I believe, with perfect faith in the coming of Moshiach. And even if he tarries, I await his coming every day.”

The prophet‘s reference to tarrying is not just about Moshiach’s tarrying but also about our reaction to his coming. We tarry and hesitate when it comes to getting out of our Sodom/exile. We want a place of respite before the Redemption.

And to counter all three reasons for this tarrying, there are three expressions of faith in the Ani Maamin prayer:

(a) “I believe” (b) “with perfect faith” (c) “I await his coming every day.”

To counter the attitude of: “I like it here in exile,” we declare “I believe in the coming of Moshiach.” We believe that our place is not in exile because in exile we are not truly ourselves. Thus, the emphasis on the word “I”. The true “I” believes in and identifies with Moshiach.

To respond to the fear of change, we say “with perfect faith”, to indicate that we are not fearful of this change, and that we want it with all of our heart and soul. The reason why it is a sincere faith is that, in truth, the changes will not destroy who we are now. It will merely enhance all that we are and possess. It is not change; it is real growth.

And to dismiss the fear of the future challenges we assert: “I await his coming every day.” This expresses our intense desire and eager anticipation for Moshiach and the future Redemption. We do not ask for Redemption reluctantly, rather, we are enthusiastic about it because we believe that we will be able to meet the new challenges.

Moshiach Matters

Our Sages have told us that the time before the coming of Moshiach will be a time of paradox. On the one hand, we will be able to perceive a glimmer of the future light, on the other hand, this era will be weighted down by a darkness so palpable that it will prevent the light from being properly perceived.(Overview to A Partner in the Dynamic of Creation by Malka Touger)

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