Wealth Over Life? – Vayera 5783

D'var Torah | Genesis

Although the concept was already known in the 1950’s, it was under the Reagan administration in the United States that the neutron bomb was developed and deployed. The “neutron bomb” is a version of an Enhanced Radiation Weapon: a nuclear device that emits many times more radiation than a standard nuclear bomb with the added advantage of dissipating quickly. The radiation can penetrate through even the most heavily armored tanks and fortifications, killing the crews, while preserving intact the tanks themselves. The Soviet Union dubbed this bomb the “capitalist bomb” since it placed property ahead of people. Under protest and lobbying, the weapons were never fully deployed and by 2011 they were completely dismantled.


This episode in Cold War confrontation is but one of many examples of the ancient debate on what matters most: human life or material wealth. One such example is known to all air travelers who are warned before take-off that should an emergency evacuation become necessary, passengers are to leave all their possessions behind. Another such example appears in the story of Lot. Two angelic visitors inform Lot that he must quickly make his escape from city of Sodom before it is to be destroyed by God for its violence and evil. However, Lot is not so eager to leave. According to an ancient Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 50:1), Lot kept delaying, exclaiming, “What a loss of gold and silver and precious gems!” While God saw the destruction of Sodom as a necessary corrective, Lot saw the destruction of Sodom as – literally – a golden opportunity. If he could just remain a little longer, he would be able to amass all the wealth that the dead leave behind.


The cantillation that accompanies the text seems to follow the perspective of the Midrash. Scripture describes how Lot delayed his departure (va-yit-ma-mayha, in Hebrew) and the Masoretes indicate that the word should be chanted with the shalshelet, a trope that requires stretching out the word’s recital with the repetition of three consecutive notes that rise and fall, extending the time it takes the reader to chant it. In other words, the chanting itself parallels Lot’s delaying.


What both the Midrash and the cantillation suggest that Lot was torn between his personal safety and the acquisition of material wealth. Needless to say, Lot’s conduct is far from heroic. While he did not longingly look backward at Sodom nostalgically as did his wife (Who was peremptorily turned into a pillar of salt), his feelings were no less reprehensible.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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