D’var Torah: Remaining righteous amid overwhelming evil

By Rabbi Lynn Goldstein

You might say that some of the people I work with in the city have lived-or still do, in a modern day Sodom and Gemorah. Each person’s story is different, each person’s reaction to the situation is different, and each person’s struggle is different. But a struggle it most certainly is. Imagine the terror of a young girl being forced by her mother to go into a closet with her uncle. Or the horror of a woman being raped by a soldier with whom she is serving. Or the young gay man in prison who showers at 4 a.m. to avoid the older, stronger prisoners on the prowl.

How difficult would life have to be if an old, used, dirty mattress cover was a big improvement to sleeping on the floor? How would you cope, find a job, try to better yourself if 10 years ago you served time, and now, because of your record, no one would hire you? How would you find the strength to hope in tomorrow, to believe that God’s world is a good one and to work to make it so?

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In Abraham’s time, Sodom and Gemorah were filled with violence and destruction. But the midrash tells us the breaking point was when a good person tried to help an old, hungry man and the city put her to death. Nehama Leibowitz, a great Torah scholar, explained: “… the height of their wickedness lay not in the activities of the individual transgressors but in the fact that such iniquitous behavior was clothed with a cloak of legality, raised to the level of a social norm…” It’s not just that violence and drugs, mayhem, fear, and death have become a social norm of those who still live in Sodom and Gemorah, it’s that the rest of us tend to look away, avoid the geographic area, and thank our lucky stars it’s not us in there, thus accepting it as the “norm” for those places.

Abraham argued with God that should there be any righteous individuals, the cities should be spared on their account. And just a few weeks ago, we learned that Noah was righteous in his time; that compared to the evil in the world around him, he was truly righteous, even though he perhaps was not as righteous as, say, Abraham. It is much harder to be righteous when everything around you is evil, than when your surroundings are good and kind.

In the Sodoms and Gemorahs of our time, there is certainly evil. And it can be truly frightening. But there are also a great many people who are struggling against all odds to try to rise above the violence, to try to get an education or a job, to try to live drug or alcohol free, to do their best with what they have. And, like Noah, they too, are righteous individuals.

I can imagine Abraham trying to explain to his sons why he argued with God over Sodom and Gemorah, perhaps saying: We do not live in a perfect world. All about us wrongs are committed. But we are not permitted to close our eyes to the injustices of the world around us. We are commanded to take action. To intervene. To help. To be the messengers of God here on earth, seeking what we know to be true and right. We are to fight for those who we know in the innermost recesses of our hearts depend on our help to triumph over the wrongs and the evil that holds them back.”

There are many good and righteous people, working with their whole heart and soul to transcend Sodom and Gemorah. To live righteous lives, or as one of my clients put it: “to make my life right with God. To make God proud of me.” We need, each one of us, to find some way to help. There are dozens of agencies and organizations that are devoted to individuals like my clients who would welcome our hands, our hearts, our time, our donations. May each of us find a way to be Abraham, and stand up for those who are struggling to be righteous, whatever their circumstances may be.

About 100 years ago, James Oppenheimer said: There comes a moment when to believe is not enough…when to go on merely feeling and thinking is inexcusable…There comes a moment when we must go and act.

Rabbi Tarfon taught, Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor. You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.

And in the words of Hillel, If not now, When?

Rabbi Lynn Goldstein is Religious School Director at Congregation B’nai El, a Social Worker/Group Facilitator for Healing Circle therapy groups in St. Louis City and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.