Abraham Sees Sodom in Flames
Abraham Sees Sodom in Flames James Tissot

Redemption comes in unexpected ways from unexpected sources, unexpected places, and unexpected people. And Parashat Vayeira records the birth of Redemption, in the most unexpected way, from the most unexpected source, the most unexpected place, and most unexpected of people.

Last week, Parashat Lech Lecha recorded how Avram (before he was yet Avraham) and his nephew Lot parted ways. In an amicable split, Lot chose to dwell in the great metropolis of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Jordan Valley (Genesis 13:8-13) – an indication of how morally degenerate he could become.

And this week, Parashat Vayeira records G-d’s destroying Sodom and Gomorrah.

Near the beginning of the Parashah, G-d informed Avraham of His intention to destroy the metropolis, and Avraham rose to the occasion magnificently by pleading for the entire metropolis to be spared if only 50 tzaddikim were there.

G-d agreed – but Avraham wasn’t satisfied, and began haggling G-d Himself down. So G-d agreed to spare the entire population for the sake of 45 tzaddikim…for 40…for 30…for 20…eventually for just 10.

Those ten weren’t there – but Avraham couldn’t have known that yet.

There is a crucial principle that it is not enough that justice be done, justice must also be seen to be done. So G-d sent two angels in the guise of men; two men who encountered Lot, and who Lot invited into his house for the night, risking his life to protect them.

The subsequent behaviour of all the men of Sodom, “from youngest to oldest, the entire citizenry from one end of the city to the other” (Genesis 19:4), demonstrated empirically why G-d had doomed them all to extermination.

And similarly, Lot’s behaviour, risking his own life to protect the guests under his roof, equally demonstrated empirically why G-d had judged him and his family worthy of being saved.

When the men told Lot (who by now must have been aware were angels) that G-d was about to destroy the city, and asked whether he had any relatives whom he would save form the destruction, he hastened to warn his son-in-law – but they didn’t take his warning seriously, “he seemed like a clown in his sons-in-laws’ eyes” (v.14).

Lot’s precise words to his sons-in-law are important:

קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִן הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה כִּי מַשְׁחִית ה' אֶת הָעִיר

“Arise, get out of this place, because Hashem is destroying the city”.

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the phrase קוּמוּ צְּאוּ (“Arise, get out”) occurs only twice in the entire Tanach: here, and when Pharaoh told Moshe and Aaron:

קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִתּוֹךְ עַמִּי גַּם אַתֶּם גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְכוּ עִבְדוּ אֶת ה' כְּדַבֶּרְכֶם

“Arise, get out from among my nation – both you and the Children of Israel – and go and worship Hashem as you said” (Exodus 12:31).

And the Ba’al ha-Turim derives from this: “This teaches that Israel were divided into different groups, and of them there were those who didn’t want to leave [Egypt], and who died in the three days of the [Plague of] Darkness”.

That is to say: Just as in Sodom there were those of Lot’s family who didn’t take the warning seriously, who were so attached to Sodom and Gomorrah that they were determined to remain there even unto death, so too there were Jews who were so attached to Egypt that they were determined to remain there even unto death.

Now this comment of the Ba’al ha-Turim’s is extremely unusual, for two reasons.

First, the Ba’al ha-Turim often notes that a word or phrase only occurs in two of three places, and derives a midrashic lesson from this, drawing parallels between the two or three instances of the specific word or phrase. However, he generally notes this in the final instance of the word or phrase under consideration.

Here, he gives his explanation in the first instance of the phrase קוּמוּ צְּאוּ.

I have not found anyone who has addressed this singularity. But I identify a general trend that on those few occasions that the Ba’al ha-Turim gives his insights in the first instance rather than the last, there is some inference of Israel’s Redemption in the earlier narrative.

And here, indeed, the Ba’al ha-Turim draws the parallel between Lot and his immediate family being saved from Sodom and the Children of Israel being saved from Egypt 401 years later.

But there is something even more unusual here – something maybe unique in the Ba’al ha-Turim’s commentary: he notes this parallel phrase again in his commentary to Exodus 12:31, and gives a different perspective:

“Just as there [Lot and family in Sodom] the angels dragged them out against their will, as it is written ‘He hesitated, so the men seized him by his hand and by his wife’s hand and by his two daughters’ hand’ (Genesis 19:16), so to here [in Egypt] He similarly dragged them out of Egypt against their will”.

It is supremely unusual, maybe actually unique, that the Ba’al ha-Turim comments on the phrase in both places.

I suggest that the reason for this is that both instances of קוּמוּ צְּאוּ, “Arise, get out” introduce Israel’s redemption.

Because when Lot and his family fled from Sodom, they took refuge in a crevice in the mountains overlooking the Jordan Plain, with a view down into what became the Dead Sea.

His daughters, believing that they were the last people remaining in the world, decided that they had to repopulate the world. So on two successive nights they got their father drunk and impregnated themselves from him (Genesis 19:30-38).

However we interpret their intentions, this was certainly not an auspicious start to a new dynasty. Yet the older daughter called her son Moav (from מֵאָבִי, me-avi, “from my father”) and the younger daughter named her son בֶּן עַמִּי, Ben-Ammi, “Son of my nation”, who eventually became Ammon.

Moav (Moab) became a mighty nation on Israel’s eastern border in the southland: its home territory was in trans-Jordan facing the Dead Sea.

And from Moav, some three-quarters of a millennium later, would come a princess called Ruth, who would convert to Judaism, marry the Judge Boaz, and thereby become the great-grandmother of David, who became the greatest King of Israel ever, founder of the Jewish Royal Dynasty, and ultimately ancestor of the Mashiach.

So from this most inauspicious and unexpected of places – Sodom; from this most inauspicious and unexpected of sources and people – the incestuous union of Lot and his daughter, began the dynasty that would culminate in the Mashiach, Israel’s ultimate Redemption.

Indeed the Talmud (Yevamot 63a, Bava Kamma 38b) and the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 41:4) tell us that G-d sustained these two entire nations – Moav and Ammon – because of two righteous women who would descend from them – Ruth and Na’amah.

Let us return to the phrase קוּמוּ צְּאוּ, “Arise, get out”. In both cases there is a grammatical peculiarity: a dagesh (a dot) in the letter צ, a dagesh that has no reason to be there.

What does it connote?

I suggest:

The צ represents the tzaddik, the righteous person, in whose merit the nation is saved. The dagesh emphasises the letter. So this unwarranted dagesh in the צ emphasises the tzaddik in the world.

Let us put this into the context of both instances of the phrase קוּמוּ צְּאוּ, “Arise, get out”:

The first, Lot’s words to his sons-in-law, reads:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ ק֤וּמוּ צְּאוּ֙ מִן־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה

“And he said: Arise, get out of this place, because Hashem is destroying the city”.

The second, Pharaoh’s words to Moshe and Aaron, reads:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ ק֤וּמוּ צְּאוּ֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ עַמִּ֔י

“And he said: Arise, get out from among my nation”.

In both cases, the cantillation-marks are the same:

מַהְפַּ֤ךְ פַּשְׁטָא֙ מֻנּ֣ח זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן פַּשְׁטָא֙

Which denotes: “The overturning spread forth, the respite of the small upright one spread forth”.

In the case of Lot and his sons-in-law, the overturning spread forth over the vast conurbation of Sodom and Gomorrah, referred to as מַהְפֵּכַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה, mah’peichat S’dom va-Amorah (Deuteronomy 29:22, Jeremiah 49:18); the small upright family – Lot and his two surviving daughters – fled to the hills where they found their respite.

And 401 years later, the overturning spread forth over the whole of Egypt, and the remnants of Israel left upright to find in the wilderness their respite from slavery.

These were two of the great milestones on Israel’s great trek to redemption.