The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (109b), as Rashi references in his commentary to Parashat Vayera (18:21), tells the disturbing story of a crime committed by the people of Sedom, on account of which God sentenced the city to annihilation. The city adopted a strict policy forbidding the offering of charitable assistance to the poor, but there was a certain young woman who defied the edict and secretly brought food each day to an impoverished man. When the townspeople learned of her charitable activity, they punished her by smearing honey all over her body and placing her on a rooftop, where she was stung to death by bees.
Rav Elazar Phillips, in his Marpei Arukha, offers a novel theory to explain why this particular punishment was chosen by the people of Sedom. While we understand that the society of Sedom is depicted by Chazal as cruel and heartless, the question remains as to why the townspeople decided upon this specific means of torture and execution. Rav Phillips suggests that bees symbolize the ideology underlying Sedom’s policy of cruelty. The townspeople believed that every person must fend for himself rather than rely on other people’s assistance. From their viewpoint, people suffering deprivation do not deserve help because it is their responsibility to find a means of sustenance for themselves. The punishment for helping the needy was thus meted out by bees, who work diligently together to build their nest and produce their honey. And, as Rav Phillips notes, bees that do not work in the hive (drone bees) are eventually driven from the nest. Bees symbolized for the people of Sedom the expectation that everyone work and contribute, without ever relying on others for assistance. Therefore, those who fed the poor were punished with bees.
The Torah’s stance, of course, is that irrespective of the importance of hard work and self-sufficiency, those who are, for whatever reasons, incapable of providing for themselves and their families, or whose efforts to earn a livelihood were unsuccessful, are to be helped. Financial straits do not necessarily reflect a lack of effort or initiative. People face financial hardship for many different reasons, and it is wrong to assume about any needy individual that he or she is undeserving of sympathy and help. The lesson to be learned from Sedom’s example of insensitivity is that we must not cast judgment upon those facing hardship, and should instead show compassion and generously assist all those who truly need help.