Yesterday I saw an amazing documentary film about the journey of teshuva – Hebrew for repentance or redemption – of an entire community, led by a Polish born non-Jewish Prophet, named Bogdan Bialek.
This last week in synagogue, we read the chapters that speak about Abraham’s encounters with G-d: One of them is the story of how Abraham bargains with G-d to save Sodom and Gomorroh – two cities that have become the symbol of evil that according to G-d require total destruction.
What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorroh? There are several back stories contained in the Jewish books we call “midrash” which many of the commentaries to the bible base their ideas on. I came across this interpretation in Tablet magazine yesterday.
In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah—recounted in the Torah in Parshat Vayera, which will be read this Shabbat—the Bible addresses the question of ethics head-on. These towns represent a human society so thoroughly corrupt that it is beyond the possibility of repair. There are other stories in which God finds human behavior to be abhorrent, but there is usually some redemption (as in the story of Nineveh in the book of Jonah), or a remnant remains that holds the potential to rebuild (like the living things in Noah’s ark). Only here does an entire place get annihilated with fire and brimstone.
What makes this place irredeemable? Some people assume that the biblical narrative is clear: It was “sodomy”—a particular male sex act—that infuriated God. But the oldest interpretations of the story see it very differently.
The prophet Ezekiel brings it up in one of his warnings to the kingdom of Judah in the sixth century BCE:
Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)
Centuries later, the ancient rabbis fleshed out Ezekiel’s charge in a midrash—a snippet of biblical interpretation. Here is a passage from Genesis Rabbah, a collection of commentaries compiled in the third century CE:
There was an incident concerning two young girls who went down to fill pitchers with water from the spring.
One of them said to her friend, “Why is your face so sickly?”
The other said to her, “Our food is all gone and we are about to die.”
What did the first one do? She filled her pitcher with flour and switched the two, each girl taking what was in the hand of the other.
When [the people of Sodom] became aware of this, they took her and burned her.
The Holy Blessed One said, “Even if I wanted to keep silent, the judgment in the case of the young girl does not permit me to keep silent.”
This midrash paints a terrible picture: A young woman burned to death as punishment for an act of compassion. And her burning was not the work of hooligans. God uses legal terminology—“judgment” and “case” —implying that the people of Sodom took the compassionate girl to court for sneaking food to a starving neighbor. She was tried and convicted under the law of the land. In Sodom, feeding a hungry person was a criminal act that carried the death penalty. The act that forced God’s interference was a legal one.
Does not this account of the midrash remind you of the State of Nazi Germany, in our time, where to offer any compassionate help to Jews was a legally criminal act subject to the death penalty!!!!!
The crimes of the Nazi State continue to be an open wound to both Jews and non-Jews.
In this film we see Bogdan and the town of Kielce attempting to come to terms with this open wound and doing a damn good job of it.
It is a must see movie for anyone who has had any connection to the Shoah or indeed to any horrible uncontrollable trauma whether personal or collective.
To buy the movie for institutional or private screening go to Bogdan’s Journey.
You will thank me! And I hope you do.