Parashat Nitzavim — Sodom’s Salts

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The verses concluding Parashat Nitzavim compare the dismal fate expected in the Land of Israel to that of Sodom:

And later generations will ask — the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that God has inflicted upon that land, all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it, just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which God overthrew in fierce anger” (Deuteronomy 29:21–22).

Along with these verses, the Torah interspersed from the very beginning of the passage phrases that evoke a similar atmosphere, such as “You stand (NeTZaVim) this day, all of you” — which reminds us of Lot’s wife, who became a pillar (NeTZiV) of salt — and the sinner who “God’s anger and passion will rage against” — which reminds us of the fire and sulfur that were sprinkled on Sodom from heaven — and, finally, “he saw the smoke of the land rising like the smoke of a kiln.”

The Ramban explained that the people of Sodom were united among themselves and kept away guests and foreigners as a result: “Their intention was to stop people from coming among them, as our Rabbis have said (Sanhedrin 109a), for they thought that because of the excellence of their land, which was as the garden of the Eternal, many will come there, and they despised charity.”

In a way, the story of salt encapsulates the breakdown of social solidarity. For thousands of years, salt was an essential commodity. In a world without refrigeration, salt preserved meat. Preservation of perishable goods with salt enabled a tremendous expansion of trading and business activity, since now it was possible to travel on long voyages to buy or sell what were previously perishable products. But the invention of salt as a preservation mechanism also broke down society. Before, anyone who hunted or butchered his flock had to consume the meat in a limited time before it went bad. It is likely that people invited many acquaintances and guests to share in eating the meat for this purpose, to ensure that the slaughtered animal wouldn’t go to waste.

This social-economic interaction of breaking bread over the eating of fresh meat was powerful and common until salt rendered it unnecessary and irrelevant. The ability to preserve food for long periods of time allowed people to keep their kill for themself with no need to share, or timeshift by selling meat products for consumption by others at home since the meat would stay fresh longer and therefore maintain its value over time. All at once, social circles dissolved, and the practice of hosting and welcoming guests, once a regular and common act, became primitive or a thing of the past. In the language of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers: “One that says: “[what’s] mine is mine, and [what’s] yours is yours”: this is a commonplace type [of person]; and some say this is a Sodom-type of character.” Salt “technology” to preserve food changed society. During times of change, especially with technology that can be used for both productive and nefarious goals, core values are necessary in order to steer human behavior. In Sodom, a society that became wealthy without values, society frayed, as symbolized by the salt, and its destruction was particularly severe.

It turns out that, like salt, there may be another factor that causes society to disintegrate. For the establishment of the covenant in this week’s parasha, everyone must be present and included:

You stand this day, all of you, before your God — your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every householder in Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer…I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before our God יהוה and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deuteronomy 29:9–10, 13–14).

Accordingly, the one who betrays and violates the covenant with God is described in a unique way: “When hearing the words of these sanctions, one may imagine a special immunity, thinking, “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart” — to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.” And as Rabbi Ibn Ezra explained: “I will live because of the righteousness of the righteous, for the pious are many and I am an individual sinner.”

When individuals or small communities ride on the success of general society, without contributing to its efforts, participating or sharing its values, great anger arises: “God will never forgive that party. Rather, God’s anger and passion will rage against them…” God’s reaction is also severe: Measure for measure: “until every sanction recorded in this book comes down upon them, and God blots out their name from under heaven. God will single it out from all the tribes of Israel for misfortune…”

But the section does not end with sin and punishment. The next verse skips to a much broader problem without explanation:

And later generations will ask — the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that God has inflicted upon that land, all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt…They will be told, “Because they forsook the covenant that God of their ancestors, made with them upon freeing them from the land of Egypt…God uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as is still the case” (Deuteronomy 29:21–22, 24, 27).

Many commentators have asked, how did that happen? The obvious answer in my opinion is that the provocative actions of the individual break up society and the covenant at large. When this happens, the commensurate punishment is exiling the Jews among the nations. This is an odd punishment because quite clearly the atmosphere and conditions in exile will not easily enable keeping God’s commandments or prevent Jews from worshiping foreign idols. On the contrary, the Torah prophesies: “There you will serve gods of wood and stone, made by human hands…” What is dispersion in Exile useful for? Rebuilding community and renewing consolidation and unity ​​of the Jewish people. Living among other nations forces Jews to bind together to both preserve tradition and their particular identity among a foreign culture.

This is also what the Jerusalem Talmud says: “The generation of (King) Ahab were idolaters but since there was no informing (informants/traitors) among them they went to war and were victorious” (Tractate Pe’ah 1a). If the entire generation operates with a common set of values, they succeed even if the values are wrong or distorted. However, when an individual tries to exploit the fact that everyone else operates by a common code, yet he or his smaller community bucks the code, the situation becomes unsustainable. Of course, a common code of idolatry will not last in the long-run. When man worships idols, manifold deities, he himself chooses the one who is supposedly designated to help him realize his personal ambitions, although in reality such behavior often strengthens egoism and leads to the abandonment of any moral anchor rooted in values. But all this analysis of idol worship is more relevant to the many other parshiot that deal with the sins of Avoda Zara, its consequences and punishment.

Since Parashat Nitzavim generally deals with a cynical exploitation of accepted standards and norms, it is important to clarify: the Torah favors and approves of diversity of thought and talents. The nation of Israel is comprised of tribes whose intellectual and entrepreneurial diversity we will read about in the Torah in just three weeks time when Moshe blesses them. The condition is to act transparently, maintaining line of sight with other members of your people. An earnest sense of real partnership and positive intentions is critical for the success of the whole. This is exactly what the Rabbis taught when they said: “Concealed acts concern our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children forever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching” (Deuteronomy 29:28).

May we all partner in being a blessing in the coming year. Shana tova.

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