A Random Walk With Rashi: Shimon Says, Don’t Look Back

Since our study group has been off for what seems forever, I thought I’d dust off one of our group’s earlier (pre-TCJewFolk) summaries, as a bit of a flashback, and to whet our collective whistles before diving back in. As we learn with prayer and our liturgy, these things can take a bit of a warm up phase to do well.

Before we do that, I would add a correction to my last post – one person wrote in to suggest, politely, that my use of the word ‘exigenic’ should have perhaps been ‘exigetic’. I stand and stood corrected. It reminds me, and us, that – try as I might – given schedules and print cycles, my posts are typically reviewed by the Rabbi, with an eye toward religious accuracy, only after the fact. Even then, the problem is, his edits tend to be things that nobody but another Rabbi would catch. For instance, in a previous post I described Onkelos as translating the Torah from Aramaic into Hebrew, when in fact it was the opposite. Fun stuff like that. With all due respect, I cannot imagine there are many readers out there who were thinking to themselves at the time “Hey … wait a second, I thought Onkelos.… ”

That is probably how the Torah and our texts have become as disjointed as they seem at times, with scribes, commentators, and writers like me getting it wrong along the way. Assuming these posts survive, perhaps akin to a sporadic digital equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, generations from now people might try to find the deeper meaning in my typos. And they probably will. I often see myself as being not unlike Peter Seller’s Chauncey Gardiner character in the film Being There (those who know, know).

With that caveat, we look back to Genesis 19:24. “Ah, Genesis 19:24” you might say – and well you should. It was the climactic moment of Lot’s escape from Sodom, just prior to the scenes we are currently in, with Abraham and his “lot” now in Gerar.

Genesis 19:24

And Hashem had rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah sulfur and fire, from Hashem, out of heaven.


Rather than reproduce Rashi’s commentary, given its length, it will instead be split up and summarized below.

But first, as is usual with our group, we digress, and notice that the Hebrew word for sulfur in this verse is “gavrit”, which is the same word that is used to describe, for instance, a match, as in the wonderful documentary about Hannah Senesh, “Blessed is the Match.” And if you want a sense of what burning sulfur might have looked like – and try to imagine Lot being surrounded by it all – we recommend looking for and at an amazing set of pictures by Olivier Grunewald here.

But beyond the scene itself, our own questions abound – beginning with – why the repetition of Hashem, twice in the same verse?

And what about geography – now that things are about to be destroyed, what does the area actually look like, in terms of the physical proximity between the four (or five) cities that are about to be destroyed, the plains in which they sit, and the mountains where Abraham resides – locations that to this point have all been intermittently and variously worked into the text.

And, finally, we are back to questions about timing – as we approach this dramatic scene, we realize that all of the verses that we have so diligently studied over the past couple of years are describing scenes that – in Torah time – are occurring within a single day.

From the beginning of the scene in Chapter 18, in which the three angels approach Abraham (which is itself presumably only 3 days and one chapter after his discussion with G-d – and his circumcision) – through their debate about finding 50 or fewer righteous people in Sodom, to the remaining two angels traveling to Sodom, and being squirreled away from the angry mob, to this new dawn (hint), where Lot and his family are being hurried out of the city, as we see (though Lot cannot) the city now being destroyed. All this occurring in a but single day of Lot’s life, while being dissected over the course of a couple of years time by our study group.

Rashi’s concerns bring up some of the same questions, beginning with:

AND HASHEM HAD RAINED – according to Rashi “wherever it says ‘and Hashem’ it refers to Him and His court”.

Though translated in English as “Hashem” the Hebrew here is the traditional yud-hay-vov-hay, or tetragrammaton, that is often used to invoke the name of G-d. This can be contrasted to the word “elohim” which is a generic word for a run of the mill god or gods, generally. Actually, there is also a vov in our current verse, before our name for G-d, making it read “v’donai’, and is an example of an elision – the omission (intentional or not) of a vowel or portion of a word. Examples of elisions in English being laboratory, vegetable, and the like. Not that we find deeper meaning in those words (actually, we just haven’t tried). So we have ourselves an elisional tetragrammaton – you learn something new every day. And in case you’re wondering, the opposite of an elision is an epenthesis – the addition of one or more sounds to a word, especially to the interior of a word. (Such as adding the sound of a “p” in pronouncing hamster).

In turn, we learn a bit about the why, when, and how elohim and adonai are used in the Torah, and in turn, the meanings to be derived. In fact, it seems that Bereshit (Genesis) is itself thought by some to represent the third attempt to form the world. In the first attempt there was only justice (elohim), and in the second only mercy (adonai), while in the third, and the one we know today, there is a balance between them both.

Next, Rashi picks up on the phrase – HAD RAINED UPON SODOM – here making the distinction that the people of Sodom included two distinct groups – those who worshipped the sun, and those who worshipped the moon. By destroying the place at dawn, the moment when the moon and sun both rule, Rashi concludes that neither group would be able to take advantage, claiming some preferential treatment or punishment due to their beliefs in the sun, or moon, respectively.

And finally, Rashi focuses on the phrase HAD RAINED ETC. SULFUR AND FIRE – explaining that the apparent redundancy tells us that “at first it was rain, and then it became sulfur and fire.”

Throughout our discussion, and Rashi’s explanations, we are reminded that this scene, the destruction of Sodom, is happening at dawn – the bridge or connection between night and day. This moment of the day (or slight but important variations, in terms of the moments making up daybreak, sunrise, or dawn) is one that comes up often in Torah, and more often in midrash. One midrashic source, for instance, tells us the test one should use for determining daybreak, in order to determine whether the day has sufficiently begun to recite the first shema – is when he is able to recognize the face of a friend from a distance of 4 cubits (about 6 feet). A neat way to think about daybreak (though why a friend, and not just any person?), and what it might have meant to those in the days before digital clocks.

So that’s it. A blast from the past before our friends in the study group are joined again within 4 cubits of each other tomorrow at noon. Stay tuned.

(Photo: zoomion)