<I>Vayera</I>: The First Inverted "Marrano"

One of the truly tragic figures of the Bible is Lot, nephew and adopted son of Abraham.

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
One of the truly tragic figures of the Bible is Lot, nephew and adopted son of Abraham. The first Jew had himself discovered the new-found faith of ethical and compassionate monotheism and had been elected by G-d to propagate this faith to the nations of the world, so that they might eventually be blessed through him (Genesis 12:3). Understandably, such an educational process could only take place in historical time, so that Abraham and Sarah would be expected to found a covenantal nation. Since their marriage had not been blessed with progeny, logic would dictate that the heir apparent was to be Lot, who at least shared in Abraham's blood line and had been a part of Abraham's family and teachings since they all had left Ur Kasdim for Haran, on the way to the land of Canaan (Gen. 11:31).

But Lot became negatively affected by the materialism in Egypt when famine forced the family to sojourn there for a brief period, and he forsook the Abrahamic vision and mission for the more venal and verdant pastures of the wicked Sodom (Genesis 13:5-13). We meet up with Lot once again, several decades later, in this week's Biblical reading, when two of the angel-messengers - who had visited Abraham to inform him that he and Sarah would give birth to a son - arrive now at Sodom to destroy the wicked city and rescue Lot and his family.

Lot is here pictured as the prototype of the Jew who greatly compromises the traditions of his forbears for the material comforts afforded him by a foreign and corrupt society. He has forsaken his uncle-father, the first Jew, and has become an inverted Marrano. A "Marrano" was a Jew in fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain during the Inquisition who publicly appeared as a Christian, while retaining Jewish commitments in his personal life and in the cellars of his home. An "inverted Marrano" is the Jew who is publicly and outwardly known to be a Hebrew, but who has internalized the Gentile and corrupt mores of the society in his individual life-style and outlooks.

Lot, like many inverted Marranos, has "made it" in Sodom. The Biblical text finds him "seated at the gate of the city" (19:1), at the very least as one of the wealthy and respected elders, and possibly even as an esteemed judge (Rashi, ad loc). He takes note of the arrival of the two strangers, and is caught in a difficult bind: on the one hand, all of his early training in Abraham and Sarah's tent cries out to him to welcome these men with embracing hospitality (as Abraham has so warmly done in the opening segment of our portion), but on the other hand, he has become a stingy and egocentric Sodomite. In Sodom, welcoming strangers is not only frowned upon culturally, but it is also legally forbidden. "Behold now, my lords, swerve aside (suru, so that you will not be noticed as you enter) into the house of your servant, spend the night and wash your feet (so that your bath not be at all obvious to the other townspeople), and then rise early and go on your way (so that no one will see you leave)," Lot says. No wonder that to such an invitation they respond, "No, we would rather spend the night on the city thoroughfare." (19:2)

The profound inner perversion of Lot's personality becomes clear in the very next incident. He importunes them, the strangers to "swerve into" his home, the Sodomites discover the transgression, surround the habitation and demand that Lot give over the strangers to the homosexual desires of the townsmen. Lot offers the Sodomites his two unmarried daughters in their stead. He has certainly learned hospitality from Abraham, his intentions may even be praiseworthy, but at the same time giving over his daughters to be raped is, at the very least, a misguided interpretation of the value of accepting strangers into your home. (Indeed, Lot seems to be penalized for his suggestion - which was never accepted by the rowdies who, before they could get at the two "men", were felled with blindness - when his daughters, who think the world has come to an end when Sodom and Amora become covered with molten lava, make their father drink, become impregnated by him, and thereby hope to repopulate the world. He is at the same time paid back for his good intentions by the fact that Moab is the son born to his elder daughter, whose descendant Ruth will later become the grandmother of King David .)

Moreover, Lot, the inverted Marrano, is still viewed as an alien stranger by the community for which he sacrificed his Hebraism. When he refuses their demands, he is criticized as "one who came as sojourner and is now making himself a judge" (19:5), and is viewed as a "joke" (19:14) by his resident sons-in-law. And despite all of this, he hesitates to leave the doomed Sodom, causing the angel-messengers to grab him and his family by the hand to enable them to escape the burning sulphur that will be the fate of his "adopted" nationality.

Indeed the Hebrew "and he hesitated" is punctuated by the lengthy zig-zag cantillation shalshelet, which appears only three times in the Book of Genesis (here in Genesis 19:16, in 24:12 and in 39:8), each time expressing doubt and lack of decisiveness. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, calls the cantillation shalshelet the "music of ambivalence." In our context of Lot's hesitation to leave Sodom and its impending destruction, we see the terrible fate of the inverted Marrano, internally and hopelessly divided in half by a confused identity.

Rashi (ad loc) suggests that he hesitated to leave because of his concern for his wealth in Sodom. I believe that is only part of his tragedy. Lot has no real place to go. He is neither Sodomite nor Hebrew; he is a man not only without a country, but without a real identity. I believe the Jews in the Diaspora - and especially in Europe - ought to take heed of Lot's tragedy.

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