Yesterday, I saw a fantastic documentary film about the journey of teshuva – Hebrew for repentance or redemption – of an entire community, Kielce, 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 how Abraham bargains with G-d to save Sodom and Gomorrah – two cities that have become the symbol of evil that, according to G-d, require destruction which was carried out in the Bible.
What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? There are several backstories in the Jewish books we call “midrash,” which many of the commentaries to the Bible base their ideas. I came across this interpretation in Tablet magazine yesterday.
“In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah — recounted in the Torah in Parshat Vayera, 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 behaviour 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 was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? 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 tranquillity, 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 young girl’s case 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 neighbour. 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 action that forced God’s interference was a legal one.
Does this account of the midrash remind you of the reign of Nazi Germany – when offering any compassionate help to Jews, was a legally criminal act liable for instant death?
The crimes of the Nazi State continue to be an open wound to both Jews and non-Jews. However, in this film, we see Bogdan and the town of Kielce attempting to come to terms with a massacre of Jews on Polish soil (in Kielce) in 1946. Despite almost total denial and resistance by nearly everyone living in Kielce, Bogdan Bialek, a resident of Kielce, initiates and continues his crusade for the townspeople to begin to acknowledge the 1946 massacre. Bogdan successfully shows that a group can come to repent, address these issues voluntarily, and transform itself into a self-aware and caring, empathetic entity.
It is a must-see film for anyone who has had any connection to the Shoah or to any horrible uncontrollable traumatic events, whether personal or collective. To watch the movie for an institutional or private screening, go to Bogdan’s Journey.
Postscript: After the screening, the producer, director, and several guests from Poland, including Bogdan himself, met at a Tel Aviv restaurant across the street from the Sherman Oaks Laemmle movie theatre. After I wrote this blog, I sent him the link, and here is what he wrote to me:
Thank you very much for your beautiful and touched text on your blog. If you agree, I would like to use it on the Jan Karski Society site. The meeting in Sherman Oaks was fascinating. For the first time, I was in so a great home and thus an excellent company. I hope that we will have other possibilities to meet each other. Of course, if you will be in Poland, remember about my warmest invitation to Kielce. I will try to buy a book which you recommend.