Sodom's Evil, Society's Evil

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

PARASHAT VAYERA

 

SODOM’S EVIL, SOCIETY’S EVIL

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

In last year’s lecture, we analyzed the negotiations between Avraham and Hashem before the destruction of the city of Sodom and its environs.  We noted that Hashem used this discussion to educate Avraham. Whereas Avraham originally appeared to protest on behalf of Lot alone, by the end of the exchange, he began to understand that his role was not only to act on behalf of his immediate family members, but for the general society as a whole.  Even more importantly, Hashem continually emphasized the importance of the righteous being “among the city.”  It is not enough or sufficient for a person to live a hermit-like existence of private piety; for a person’s righteousness to have value, they must be involved in, and influential to, their surroundings. 

 

This week, we will discuss the behavior of the people of Sodom.  Although Hashem testified to their evil in His conversation with Avraham, the Torah provides the reader with the opportunity to investigate the claim of their wickedness firsthand through the eyes of the two angels that visit the city.  Let us follow their journey from Sodom’s outskirts to their entry into Lot’s house:  

 

1 And the two angels came to Sodom at evening; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom; and Lot saw them, and rose up to meet them; and he fell down on his face to the earth.

2 And he said: “Behold now, my lords, turn aside, I pray you, into your servant's house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and you shall rise up early, and go on your way.” And they said: “Nay; but we will abide in the broad place all night.”

3 And he urged them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat.

 

Lot greets the angels outside the gates.  Although he welcomes them almost excessively and sycophantically, urging them to stay with him, unlike Avraham, he does not run to them when he first sees them.  Given the rude reception that awaited them, his cautious behavior demonstrates prudence, not a lack of enthusiasm.  Where the difference between Lot and his uncle becomes more pronounced is inside the house.  The food is less than adequate – matzot (unleavened cakes), the food of slaves. More important is that Lot prepares the entire meal himself.  His family is nowhere to be found. No effort on his part to instruct them in the ways of hospitality is recorded. 

 

Lot’s behavior, however lacking it may be, still remains a contrast to that of the city’s inhabitants:

 

4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, encompassed the house round, both young and old, all the people from every quarter.

5 And they called unto Lot, and said unto him: “Where are the men that came in to you this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them.”

6 And Lot went out unto them to the door, and shut the door after him.

7 And he said: “I pray you, my brethren, do not so wickedly.

8 Behold now, I have two daughters that have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do to them as is good in your eyes; only unto these men do nothing; forasmuch as they are come under the shadow of my roof.”

9 And they said: “Stand back.” And they said: “This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will play the judge; now will we deal worse with you than with them.” And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and drew near to break the door.

10 But the men put forth their hand, and brought Lot into the house to them, and the door they shut.

11 And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great; so that they wearied themselves to find the door.

 

Despite Lot’s courageous, although morally questionable and misguided, attempts to save his guests, the rage of the mob can not be denied.  The Torah emphasizes the participation of every inhabitant of the city (presumably even his son-in-laws). This is not the act of a small band of crazed adolescents or members of society’s fringe. Even the elders, the leaders of the city, are found in the mob; even the children are brought to imprint upon them how Sodom treats its guests.  Any questions raised in the previous chapter about the wisdom and justice of collective punishment have been resoundingly answered. 

 

12 And the men said unto Lot: “Have you here any besides? Son-in-law, and your sons, and your daughters, and whomsoever you have in the city - bring them out of the place.

13 For we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxed great before Hashem; and Hashem has sent us to destroy it.”

14 And Lot went out, and spoke unto his sons-in-law, who married his daughters, and said: “Up, get out of this place; for Hashem will destroy the city.” But he seemed unto his sons-in-law as one that jested.

15 And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying: “Arise, take your wife and your two daughters that are here, lest you be swept away in the iniquity of the city.”

16 But he lingered; and the men laid hold upon his hand and upon the hand of his wife and upon the hand of his two daughters, Hashem being merciful unto him. And they brought him forth and set him without the city.

 

What, then, was the sin of Sodom that led to their destruction?  Clearly, the episode with Lot serves as a dual foil.  The two linked, juxtaposed stories about the proper and improper treatment of strangers clarify why Sodom became synonymous with injustice and cruelty.  Not only does the city’s unquestioning love of their own lead to unqualified hatred of the outsider, when they encounter opposition, they quickly and sadistically turn on each other.  In the Ramban’s commentary, this distinctive sin exemplifies their downfall:

 

The Sodomites intended to prevent the entry of all strangers.  They imagined that many people would come to their land on account of its fertility, and they refused to share its bounty with the less fortunate.  They accepted Lot, either on account of his wealth or out of respect to Avraham … According to our Sages, they were notorious for every kind of evil, but their fate was sealed for their continued refusal to support the poor and the needy.  They were continually guilty of this sin, and no other nation could be compared to Sodom for its cruelty.

 

However, the midrash adds an additional dimension to the nature of Sodom’s sin:

 

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, saw a very poor man in the street.  What did she do?  Every day she put out water and provisions so that he would live.  One day, the elders decided to investigate why the pauper had not perished, discovered her acts, and brought her out to be burnt by fire …

 

Not only are they wicked, states the midrash, but their wickedness was conducted openly, through the rule of law.  By clothing their immoral behavior in the cloak of legality, they led to their city’s destruction. 

 

However, we cannot ignore the heavy sexual undertone that accompanies the Sodomites’ attempted lynching of the guests – both hidden in their request “bring them out unto us, that we may know them," and made explicit by Lot’s offer of his two virgin daughters.  Their brand of injustice is epitomized by their perversions:  the attempted acts of sodomy on the strangers and the later acts of incest that Lot’s daughters would perform on their father.  (This was measure for measure – Lot incestually offered his daughters to “his brothers;” he finds that they have performed the same act upon him.)   

 

The sin of Sodom was its dislike of the other – those from the outside.  Cities, by nature, strive for a certain homogeneity, a sameness of purpose, that easily becomes corrupted to indifference to the needs of the stranger. It culminated in Sodom’s case in deriving sadistic satisfaction from inflicting additional suffering upon them.  In addition, the misogyny manifested in Sodom    demonstrates a disdain for the other.  Homosexuality in its essence is a non-creative act, performed between two people alike in every way.  Ironically, it was Sodom’s abundant fertility that caused them to engage in the least fruitful act.  At least Lot’s daughters attempted to repopulate their environs. 

 

Sodom became synonymous with sterility. Appropriately, Hashem’s punishment reflects their already barren behavior:

 

24 Then Hashem caused to rain upon Sodom and upon Amorrah, brimstone and fire from Hashem out of heaven.

25 And He overthrow those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that that grew upon the ground.

26 But his [Lot’s] wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.

 

What was once as fertile as Eden became arid wasteland.  What was once “the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where … like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as you go unto Zoar” (Bereishit 13:10) became the quiet death of the Dead Sea, filled with the salt into which Lot’s wife was turned.  The people of Sodom misused their abundant, fruitful fecundity.  Ultimately, their sterility and perversion would destroy themselves; the scorched land only reflected this ultimate reality.