Looking Forward with Faith (Vayara – 10/27/18)
Looking Forward with Faith
One of the things that intrigues me the most is the commonalities shared in origin stories or myths as some might say. Are they variants on divinely inspired wisdom, or truisms that people across the world became attuned to at the same time?
A few weeks ago, we compared Pandora’s Box to the sin of Adam and Eve. The following week, we compared Noah’s Ark to the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. When I was learning about the origins of Rome, there’s the story of how Romulus and Remus were saved from their murderous uncle by being placed in a basket and sent down the Tiber River, it sounds strangely familiar to the story of baby Moses being placed in a basket on the Nile.
Today, I’d like to examine the problem of looking backwards as described in two seminal stories. Two people merely look backwards when they’re supposed to be concentrating forward and they suffer eternal ramifications. Is there a rationale for this, is there a common thread, is there a life lesson?
One case occurs in our Parsha, Genesis Chapter 19. Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and his family are whisked out of Sodom moments before its destruction. As the Angels lead them out and tell them to hide, they’re instructed not to look back:
22 Hasten, flee there, for we will not be able to destroy Sodom until you arrive there.
כב מַהֵר֙ הִמָּלֵ֣ט שָׁ֔מָּה כִּ֣י לֹ֤א אוּכַל֙ לַֽעֲשׂ֣וֹת דָּבָ֔ר עַד־בֹּֽאֲךָ֖ שָׁ֑מָּה עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָרָ֥א שֵֽׁם־הָעִ֖יר צֽוֹעַר:
23 The sun came out upon the earth, and Lot came to Zoar.
כג הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ יָצָ֣א עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְל֖וֹט בָּ֥א צֹֽעֲרָה:
24 And the Lord caused to rain down upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire, from the Lord, from heaven.
כד וַֽיהֹוָ֗ה הִמְטִ֧יר עַל־סְדֹ֛ם וְעַל־עֲמֹרָ֖ה גָּפְרִ֣ית וָאֵ֑שׁ מֵאֵ֥ת יְהֹוָ֖ה מִן־הַשָּׁמָֽיִם:
25 And God turned over these cities and the entire plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the vegetation of the ground.
כהו ַיַּֽהֲפֹךְ֙ אֶת־הֶֽעָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔ל וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַכִּכָּ֑ר וְאֵת֙ כָּל־יֽשְׁבֵ֣י הֶֽעָרִ֔ים וְצֶ֖מַח הָֽאֲדָמָֽה:
26 And his wife looked from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.
כו וַתַּבֵּ֥ט אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ מֵאַֽחֲרָ֑יו וַתְּהִ֖י נְצִ֥יב מֶֽלַח:
Scholars have been puzzled by this chapter for many generations. Does the text mean that she – the wife of Lot – was turned into a pillar of salt or does it mean that she looked back and it – the city – had been turned into a pillar of salt? And if it means the wife of Lot (as seems evident a few verses later) then why did she look back, and why was she punished so severely for looking back?
My instinct says that she had to look back. Her two married daughters were there – with their husbands and with their children. How could she not look back and worry about them? How could she not feel torn between leaving them, as God commanded, and wanting to stay with them, as any mother would?
So what is her crime, what’s the fault in looking back?
The other famous tragedy that occurred by looking back takes place in Virgil’s story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Apollo gives his son Orpheus a lyre and teaches him how to play. Orpheus played with such perfection that even Apollo was surprised. It is said that nothing could resist his beautiful melodies, neither enemies nor beasts. Even trees and rocks were entranced with his music. He was an ancient Eric Clapton!
Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice, a woman of unique beauty and grace, whom he married and lived happily with for a short time. However, when Hymen was called to bless the marriage, he predicted that their perfection was not meant to last.
A short time after this ominous prophecy, Eurydice was wandering in the forest with the Nymphs. In some versions of the story, Aristaeus, a shepherd, saw her, was beguiled by her beauty, made advances towards her, and began to chase her. Other versions of the story relate that Eurydice was merely dancing with the Nymphs. In any case, while fleeing or dancing, she was bitten by a snake and died instantly.
Orpheus sang his grief with his lyre and managed to move everything living or not in the world; both humans and gods were deeply touched by his sorrow and grief.
At some point, Orpheus decided to descend to Hades to see his wife. Some relate that the gods or Apollo himself, Orpheus’ father, suggested that he make this journey. Any other mortal would have died, but Orpheus, protected by the gods, went to Hades and arrived at the infamous Stygian realm, passing by ghosts and souls of people unknown. He also managed to charm Cerberus, the dog known to have three heads. Orpheus presented himself in front of the god of the Underworld Hades (Pluto) and his wife Persephone.
Orpheus played his lyre, melting even Hades’ cold heart. Hades told Orpheus that he could take Eurydice with him but under one condition; Eurydice would follow him while walking out to the light from the caves of the Underworld, but he should not look at her before coming out to the light or else he would lose her forever. If Orpheus was patient enough he would have Eurydice as a normal woman again by his side.
Thinking it a simple task for a patient man like himself, Orpheus was delighted; he thanked the gods and left to ascend back into the world. Unable to hear Eurydice’s footsteps, however, he began fearing the gods had fooled him. Eurydice was in fact behind him, but as a shade, having to come back into the light to become a full woman again. Only a few feet away from the exit, Orpheus lost his faith and turned to see Eurydice behind him, but her shadow was whisked back among the dead, now trapped with Hades forever.
Orpheus tried to return to the Underworld, but a man cannot enter the realm of Hades twice while alive. According to various versions of the myth, Orpheus started playing a mourning song with his lyre, calling for death so that he could be united with Eurydice forever. Orpheus is ultimately killed either by beasts tearing him apart, or by the Maenads, in a frenzied mood.
Two great stories, two people worthy of being saved, but their tragic flaw was that they just looked back when they should have just looked forward. What do these stories tell us about human nature? Were they justly or cruelly punished?
It’s hard to state a definitive answer, but my guess is that there’s a time for everything, as Solomon so wisely said, “A time to dance, a time to mourn.” These stories might say, “A time to look forward, a time to look backward.” When the time calls for looking forward, for faith, we need to be strong and not waiver, in our devotion to our goal.
Now more than ever is a time for faith. Faith in our country and the goodness in others. We need to have faith that the attack in Pittsburgh was an aberration and not the beginning of more horror. My experience of surviving an anti-Semitic attack at my home and synagogue in Rutherford NJ in 2012 taught me that our country is one, full of excellent supportive people who want peace and coexistence. One man expressed hate and violence, and millions have now responded in unity and love. I have faith in those millions.
May we all be comforted among the mourners.
P.S. This weekend, federations across the country and synagogues across the denominations are organizing a Shabbat of Solidarity with Pittsburgh. Friends from other faiths are invited to join. Let’s stand shoulder to shoulder and sing for the 11 men and women who cannot, and for a community shattered by their loss. Click here
for more information.