Shiur #16a: Order, Compassion and the Moral Society

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #16a: Order, Compassion and the Moral Society


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



The people of Sedom had beds for guests: if the guests were too tall, they were cut down to size; if the guests were too short, they were stretched out.  (Sanhedrin 109b)


            Many of us recall hearing this aggada back in elementary school and being struck by the strong image of human evil.  Without denying the validity of that childhood understanding, we should still try to comprehend the tale on a deeper level, as adults.  Certainly, this gemara conveys the rampant cruelty of Sedom quite successfully.  Yet we wonder about the rationale for the specific imagery chosen for this purpose.  The gemara could have employed many different manifestations of cruelty and it decided to go with this intriguing image of adjusting the guest to match the bed size. 


            Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel, Rabbi of Antwerp and then of Tel Aviv, was a master darshan as well as a fine talmid chakham in general.  He won the election for the Tel Aviv Rabbinate in 1935 when the other candidates were Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Herzog.  Among his many published sefarim, he has a wonderful work of derush called Derashot el Ami that once helped many congregational rabbis prepare for their Shabbat morning sermons.  I mention his biography as a way of reiterating how good commentary on aggada can be located if one expands the search. 


            In his Hegyonot el Ami, Rav Amiel brilliantly elucidates the meaning of this Talmudic imagery.  According to Rav Amiel, some societies perform acts of charity more as a solution to an aesthetic or bureaucratic problem than as acts of genuine kindness.  In such societies, motivation for helping the poor and the destitute is primarily that these disadvantaged people blemish the landscape of the city or prevent maximum economic efficiency.  From this bureaucratic perspective on charity, one may conclude that the needs of the poor must be adjusted to fit the help we give them, rather than adjusting our help to match the need.  We refuse to acknowledge the reality of the poor and figuratively adjust them to fit the beds we have prepared. 


            In a chilling passage, Rav Amiel describes what happens to societies that express benevolence purely as a means of keeping order.  He points out that it was the most orderly of twentieth-century cultures that produced the greatest atrocities.  When a desire for efficiency and order supplant authentic compassion, the door leading to cruelty is opened.  While Rav Amiel certainly refers to both fascism and communism, the danger he warns of can be found in any political system.  Let us first figure out the reality of those in need and then proceed with true sympathy and kindness to go about finding beds of the appropriate size.