SALT - Thursday 16 Marcheshvan 5776 - October 29, 2015

  • Rav David Silverberg

            We read in Parashat Vayera the disturbing story of Lot’s daughters, who, after having been rescued from the destruction of Sedom together with their father, mistakenly assumed that “there is no man in the land to cohabit with us” (19:31).  Figuring they and their father were the only people remaining on Earth, they gave their father wine until he became drunk, and the older daughter then slept with him.  The next night, they again gave Lot wine and he slept with the younger daughter.  Both daughters conceived and had sons.

            In relating this episode, the Torah emphasizes that in both instances, Lot “did not know when she slept [with him] or when she arose” (“ve-lo yada be-shikhvah u-ve’kumah” – 19:33,35).  Meaning, Lot had no recollection whatsoever of his intimate encounters with his daughters, of anything that occurred from the time each daughter came to lie with him until she arose.

            The Gemara in Masekhet Nazir (23a) observes that according to tradition, a dot appears in the Torah scroll above the word “u-ve’kumah” (“when she arose”) in the first instance of this phrase, in the context of Lot’s encounter with his older daughter.  The significance of this dot, the Gemara asserts, is to counter the plain meaning of the word. While the Torah appears to inform us that Lot knew nothing of this encounter after regaining sobriety, in truth, he was aware when his older daughter arose from his bed.  As such, the Gemara comments, Lot was less than innocent the second night, when he again allowed himself to become inebriated.  Having been aware of what happened the previous night, Lot should have been responsible enough to avoid intoxication the second night in order not to repeat the mistake.  The Gemara there applies to Lot the final verse in Sefer Hoshea, “for the ways of the Lord are straight…but the sinners stumble on them.”

            It appears that the Gemara understands the word “yikashelu” (“stumble”) as a reference to unintentional transgressions, sins committed without willful intent, but for which one is nevertheless held accountable.  Lot did not actually intend to commit an incestuous act, but he is nevertheless considered guilty due to his irresponsibility in allowing the second such act to occur.  Although he could be excused for the initial act due to his state of inebriation, he cannot be excused for the next night’s encounter, which he did not take the appropriate measures to avoid after being made aware of what happened the first night.  We are accountable not only for wrongful behavior, but also for failing to avoid conditions that may likely lead us to such behavior.  Religious observance requires common sense and responsibility, which includes learning from our mistakes so we can ensure not to repeat them.  And we are thus held accountable even in situations of “yikashelu,” when we err by mistake as a result of conditions which we irresponsibly failed to avoid.