"The Cry of Sodom"

  • Rav Zvi Shimon

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

 

PARASHAT VAYERA

 

"The Cry of Sodom"

by Rav Zvi Shimon

 

 

 

            This week we will be examining the opening verses of the story of the destruction of Sodom and Amora.  We will attempt to understand:

 

1. the simple meaning of these verses;

2. the sin for which Sodom and Amora were destroyed.

 

18:20: And the Lord said, Because the cry of Sodom and Amora is great, and because their sin is very grievous; 21: I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come to Me; and if not, I will know. 22: And the men turned their faces from there and went toward Sodom.

 

            Verse 21 is a very cryptic and obscure verse.  It deals with God's intention to descend and investigate a cry emanating from Sodom and Amora.  The commentators disagreed as to the meaning of the word "kala" (translated "altogether").  The different explanations affect both the punctuation of the verse as well as the purpose and content of God's descent.  The Torah text is not punctuated, hence, a verse can be read in more than one way.  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) and the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) understood "kala" to mean "destruction," as in the verse "Va-aKHALEH otam ka-rega" - "I will consume (destroy) them in a moment" (Numbers 16:21).  They base their interpretations on a punctuation mark of the Massora (see Glossary), which mandates a pause before "kala."  According to Rashi and the Rashbam the verse should be translated as follows:

 

I will go down and see whether according to the cry of it which is come unto Me they have done; DESTRUCTION [shall come upon them]; and if not, I will know.

 

            It would seem, according to this reading, that the purpose of God's descent was to determine the exact extent of Sodom's sin.  Onkelos (Aramaic translation, 2nd century) and Rashi were apparently uncomfortable with this interpretation.  God surely knows the exact nature of the cry emanating from below.  They explain that the purpose of God's descent was to determine whether or not the people of Sodom had repented from their evil ways.  The descent is an opportunity granted by God to the sinner to repent.  God, being all-merciful, withholds punishment and seeks the repentance of wrongdoers.  Had Sodom's conscience been awoken by the scream of the oppressed, they would have been given a second chance.

 

            The Spanish commentators, Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) and the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274), interpret the word "kala" to mean "altogether" (everyone) as in KALA garesh yegaresh" - "He shall thrust you out altogether" (Exodus 11:1)  "Kala is, thus, another form of the more common "kulam."  Verse 21, according to this interpretation, should be translated as follows:

 

I will go down now and see whether they have done ALTOGETHER according to the cry of it, which is come to Me; and if not, I will know.

 

            The purpose of God's descent, according to this interpretation, was to determine the scope of wrongdoing amongst the inhabitants of Sodom and Amora.  These cities' plight was dependent on the pervasiveness of sin amongst its dwellers.  Ten righteous people would have saved Sodom (see Genesis 18:32).  However, a city in which sin is universal is doomed to destruction.  This explains the severity of the total upheaval visited on Sodom.

 

            Verse 21 states that it was a "tza'aka," a certain cry emanating from Sodom, which aroused God's wrath.  What was the nature of this cry which led to the destruction of Sodom?  What cry has the power to bring about the annihilation of whole cities?

 

            The Ramban (verse 20) identifies this cry with the cry of the poor and the oppressed.  The Ibn Ezra (verse 20) raises a second possibility, that this cry is a shout of rebellion against God.  These differing opinions might not only relate to the essence of Sodom's sin.  They might represent a fundamental disagreement as to the underlying source of all evil.  Evil, according to the Ramban, is rooted in a lack of concern and empathy for one's fellow man.  Self-centeredness is the cause of evil.  The Ibn Ezra believes that evil is rooted in a rebellion against God.  Immorality stems from an unwillingness to accept the authority of the Creator and an attempt to build a society devoid of any spirituality and connection to God.  According to the Ibn Ezra, such a godless community is prone to having a perverted sense of justice and will ultimately deteriorate into anarchy and destruction.  Recent history would seem to buttress the Ibn Ezra's position.  The barbarous Nazi regime was virulently anti-religious and was based on anti-religious philosophies which rejected commonly accepted moral tenets.  (I would add, though, that religion is obviously not a guarantee of morality.)

 

            Let us see how the Torah portrays the people of Sodom.  Chapter 19 recounts of the visit of two messengers/angels to Sodom and Lot's hosting them.

 

4: But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter. 5: And they called to Lot, and said to him, Where are the men who came in to thee this night?  Bring them out to us, that we may know them. 6: And Lot went out at the door to them, and shut the door after him. 7: And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. 8: Behold now, I have two daughters, who have not known a man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do to them as is good in your eyes: only to these men do nothing, seeing that they have come under the shadow of my roof. 9: And they said, Stand back.  And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge: now will we deal worse with thee than with them.  And they strongly urged the man, Lot, and came near to break the door.

 

            Upon hearing that Lot was harboring guests, the whole city of Sodom surrounded his house and demanded that he hand over to them his guests so that they may "know" them.  What is the nature of this "knowing" demanded by the people of Sodom?

 

            The majority of the commentators (Rashi Rashbam, Ibn Ezra) interpret "neida'a" (known) to mean sexual relations, in this case, homosexual.  Support for this interpretation can be garnered from Lot's response in verse 8 - "asher lo YAD'U ish" ("[I have two daughters] who have not KNOWN a man").  The root YADA is obviously being used by Lot in a sexual sense.  According to this interpretation, Sodom's cruelty was rooted in sexual perversion and aggression.  This is the source for the English word "sodomy" (copulation with a member of the same sex or with an animal).  The Radak interprets "neida'a" to mean murder.  According to this interpretation, it was sheer viciousness and savagery which was the sin of Sodom.  The Ramban, basing himself on a midrash (homiletical interpretation) of our Sages (see tractate Sanhedrin 109a) explains the motivation for this behavior.  It was the intention of the people of Sodom to prevent visitors from coming among them.  Sodom benefited from rich and fertile land and was a very affluent community.  They, however, detested charity and were unwilling to share any of their wealth with outsiders.  They, thus, decided to forbid the entry of foreigners into their lands.  The root of Sodom's wickedness, according to this explanation, was not sexual perversion nor blood-thirsty viciousness for their own sake, but rather greed.

 

            A midrash from Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (a collection of midrashim mostly on Genesis) on the word "ha-ketza'akata" (according to her cry) extends this exegetical direction.  Rashi explains that the feminine possessive form, tza'akaTA (HER cry), relates to the cry of the city (which is feminine in Hebrew).  Just as verse 20 mentions "the cry of Sodom," so too in verse 21, the feminine possessive form relates to the cry of the city.  Chazal, however, in their homiletical style, related this cry to one very unfortunate young woman, Pelotit, the daughter of Lot: As you read the following midrash, pay attention to its understanding of the nature of Sodom's evil.  How does this differ from the picture which emerges from the story of the visit of the two angels to Sodom in chapter 19?

 

They issued a proclamation in Sodom, saying: Everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor and the needy with a loaf of bread shall be burnt by fire!  Pelotit the daughter of lot was wedded to one of the magnates of Sodom.  She saw a certain very poor man in the street of the city and her soul was grieved on his account.  What did she do?  Every day when she went out to draw water she put in her pitcher all kinds of provisions from her house and she sustained that poor man.  The men of Sodom said: How does this poor man live?  When they ascertained the facts they brought her forth to be burnt by fire.  She said: Sovereign of all worlds!  Support my right and my cause at the hands of the men of Sodom!  And HER CRY ascended before the throne of glory.  In that hour the Holy One blessed be He said: "I will go down and see whether they have done altogether according to her cry which is come unto Me" - and if the men of Sodom have done according to the cry of that young woman, I will turn her foundation upwards, and the surface downward...

(Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 25)

 

            The beginning of the midrash describes a general proclamation forbidding the giving of charity.  The wickedness of Sodom was not a trait of fringe elements nor even of the ignorant masses.  It was embedded within the very law of the city.  It was the very definition of justice.  The law itself was a source of evil in Sodom.  It is also interesting that, as opposed to Genesis 19 which depicts Sodom as a xenophobic society directing its hate at foreigners, the midrash depicts cruelty as an internal attribute governing the peoples' relations with one another.  Cruelty towards strangers inevitably leads to cruelty towards neighbors.  Sodom has no mercy for its own poor.  It acts viciously towards its own inhabitants.  Their sin is not so much in what they did but rather in what they did not do.  They cared not for the poor within them.  In the words of the prophet Ezekiel.

 

Behold this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of bread, and abundance of idleness, and yet she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.  (Ezekiel 16:49)

 

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Glossary:

 

Masora - The ancient scribal tradition which governs the production of copies of the biblical text.  This tradition includes vowel and accent signs and Masoretic notes related to the text and its correct reading.  The Masoretic notes are not part of the actual text but were added later primarily to texts which were used for the purpose of study.  Some of the commentators are willing to interpret differently from the Masoretic reading.