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Vayeira 5775-2014

“One Woman’s Cry”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, we read the well-known biblical narrative regarding the destruction of the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In Genesis 18:20-21, the Torah states, וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם, זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה וְחַטָּאתָם כִּי כָבְדָה מְאֹד. אֵרְדָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה, וְאִם לֹא, אֵדָעָה  And G-d said, “Because the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and because their sin has been very grave, I will descend and see, if they act in accordance with its outcry–-then destruction! And if not, I will know.”

When Abraham learns of the Al-mighty’s plan to destroy Sodom, he pleads with G-d to save the city on behalf of the few righteous people who dwell in Sodom, but even a few righteous people are not to be found. G-d then proceeds to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, allowing Lot and his family to escape destruction. Eventually, only Lot and two of his daughters survive.

The rabbis of the Talmud record many of the horrendous deeds of the Sodomites. The Sodomites’ practice was to offer perverse hospitality to travelers to whom they provided sleeping accommodations. If the guests were too tall for the short beds that were given, the Sodomites would cut off the guests’ limbs to make them fit. If the guests were too short for the beds, they would stretch the guests until their limbs would be ripped out of their sockets. Visitors who entered Sodom with money would be put to death and their money stolen. A farmer who displayed his produce publicly would soon find that the Sodomites would each take a small sample until nothing was left, each claiming that they had not really taken anything of value. In Sodom, vice was virtue, and virtue was vice. In fact, in Sodomite courts, the victims, rather than the evil perpetrators, were fined and punished. Through their perverse laws, the Sodomites became experts in the practice of adultery, incest and many other sexual crimes.

The commentators, however, are puzzled by the choice of words used by the Torah to describe the wickedness of the people of Sodom. When G-d says that He will go down to see the cries that came to Him, rather than using the Hebrew plural, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָם, (whether in accordance with their outcry) the feminine singular word, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ, her cry, is used.

Rashi on Genesis 18:21 declares: צַעֲקַת רִיבָה אַחַת שֶׁהָרְגוּ מִיתָה מְשֻׁנָּה עַל שֶׁנָתְנָה מָזוֹן לְעָנִי–Citing the sages of the Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b, Rashi explains that the word “her cries” refers to the cries of one particular young girl whom the Sodomites killed in an unnatural manner, for secretly providing food to a poor man.

Some claim that the particular young girl who defied the laws of Sodom was Plotit, Lot’s daughter. Since it was a regular sport for the Sodomites to watch the poor languish and die in their city, when they saw that the impoverished victim did not die, they soon discovered that he was being secretly fed. According to tradition, they tied Plotit to a tree, covered her with honey, and left her to be stung to death by bees. Her cries reached up to heaven (Vayeira 5763-2002).

Many years ago, I heard Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski speak at an AJOP Convention about the very serious “singles” problem that confronts contemporary Jewish society, and, in particular, the observant Jewish community, focusing on the large number of single women who are unable to find appropriate mates.

Rabbi Twerski interpreted the above-cited verse homiletically, noting that because of the cries of a single woman, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were unilaterally destroyed. If that is the case, argued Rabbi Twerski, what will be the penalty of contemporary Jewry for the cries of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of women, who are crying out for help, receiving little help and little sympathy?

It is unclear why there appear to be so many eligible and engaging young women who are unmarried. Of course, women face greater pressure because of their ticking biological clocks. Men can more easily afford to take their time. It may also be that because men have more mobility, when they leave the traditional Orthodox community, they seem to vanish, whereas women usually remain within the community, in their attempts to hopefully find their own personal happiness.

In the Upper West Side community of Manhattan, there have been many attempts to help single women. There was, for a time, a significant communal effort to encourage families to invite singles to organized meals, where designated hosts would try to introduce young men and women to each other. Aish HaTorah, at one point, promoted speed dating. Rabbi Mark Wildes and Manhattan Jewish Experience have been doing a great job with younger singles. Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis of Hineni offers large classes for singles. She and her staff are deeply involved in Shidduchim, finding mates. Of course, the internet dating sites have been extremely helpful. SawYouAtSinai, Frumster and YU Connects are considered successful matchmaking venues. NJOP is proud that over the years the singles dinners that our organization has sponsored have successfully introduced young couples. My own feeling is that Torah classes often prove to be a great meeting venue, because it is where quality people go, and singles can meet like-minded people.

But it is not only in the area of Shadchanut (matchmaking) that women need help. The Agunah issue has yet to be resolved. Unfortunately, many women are unable to obtain their religious divorce, get, from recalcitrant husbands. Although efforts have been made, and organizations have been founded, to help these “anchored” women, there is still much to do.

Single motherhood and fatherhood have become an increasing communal concern, as balancing a career with child rearing is much more difficult in a one parent family.

For Jewish women it seems that these are the “best of times and the worst of times.” Fortunately, we have also seen the burgeoning growth of educational opportunities for women, even in the traditional community. Women are rising to the highest levels of academia, and have emerged as exemplars of Jewish learning and teaching. While much has been accomplished on behalf of women in the last quarter century in the traditional Jewish community, much is the result of the advocacy on behalf of women by women. Yet, trying issues remain, and much remains to be done for women.

We must bear in mind that because of the cries of one single woman, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were entirely destroyed. Surely, we must all open our ears and hearts to listen to the cries, to respond to, and address the challenges that some women face.

May you be blessed.