Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion
The Sins of Sodom
By Rav Michael Hattin
Parashat Vayera constitutes the climactic conclusion to the events of last week's Parashat Lekh Lekha. It opens with the unexpected appearance at Avraham's door of three angelic messengers in the guise of men who bear good tidings of Sarah's imminent pregnancy. Though Sarah, having aged and reached menopause, is understandably incredulous, the messengers are insistent that she will in fact bear a child. After communicating their hopeful words while feigning to enjoy the regal repast prepared by their host, the ethereal messengers begin their descent from the Judean Hills towards Sodom, for they have been sent by God to destroy it. Avraham, having earlier realized the true nature of his erstwhile guests, promptly approaches God and pleads on Sodom's behalf, invoking the Deity's absolute commitment to justice and truth. Though God is receptive, there will be no compromise with evil: only if Sodom and its satellite towns contain a minimum of ten righteous men, a kernel of communal hope that may yet sprout even in Sodom's noxious soil, will the cities of the plain be spared.
In the meantime, the messengers arrive in Sodom, finding hospitality of sorts in the home of Avraham's nephew Lot. But news of their arrival quickly spreads through Sodom like wildfire, and before they have lodged for the night, all of the townspeople surround Lot's house and demand their immediate surrender. Lot refuses, even offering his own unmarried daughters in their stead, but the townspeople will not relent. Finally, the messengers intervene, betraying their true powers by striking the inhabitants with temporary blindness. Lot is bidden to speedily gather his family and immediately leave before Sodom is incinerated, but, struck with a mixture of abject fear and overwhelming regret, his feet remain rooted to the spot. In the end, the angels seize his hands and lead him out to the hills, as if he himself had been visited with the blindness that earlier plagued his compatriots. As the fiery red orb begins its final ascent over the plain, the heavens rain down brimstone and sulfur. Sodom and its suburbs are overturned by earthquake and buried under burning ash, while the evidence of their iniquity is reduced to smoldering cinders.
What exactly were the crimes of proverbial Sodom, what was it that precipitated such Divine indignation and fury? While the Torah makes a number of allusions of a general sort, the relevant texts seem intentionally vague and ambiguous. We are first informed of Sodom's wickedness as Lot prepares to relocate to the plain in the wake of the "shepherds' confrontation" recounted last week. Though Avraham had generously offered to move his own herds and flocks to different pastures so that Lot's sheep might have sufficient grazing land, the latter fatefully decided to abandon the nomadic life of the hills for the luxuries of the valley. Pitching his tent on the outskirts of Sodom, Lot found contentment, but the Torah appended a cautionary postscript to his decision: "The people of Sodom were very evil and iniquitous to God" (13:13). The matter, however, was not elaborated upon in the passage, leaving us to ponder the nature of the wickedness so cryptically indicated.
We next hear of Sodom in the wake of Avraham's successful campaign against the marauding Mesopotamian kings who had attacked it and its allies. Recall that in that attack, precipitated by the refusal of the towns to pay their yearly tribute, Lot had been taken captive along with many other Sodomites and their possessions. Avraham bested the invaders in battle, drove them back in retreat, and rescued his kinsman, the townspeople and the booty. Malki Tzedek king of Jerusalem, hearing news of the triumph, went forth to greet the victorious Avraham, bearing heartfelt words of blessing and presenting him with symbolic gifts of bread and wine. The king of Sodom, who had earlier fled the fray, also paid his respects, but his was more of a reluctant and mercenary exercise in self-interest. Never for a moment expressing gratitude to God or to man, he brusquely demanded the release of the captives while grudgingly acknowledging Avraham's rights to the spoils, but the magnanimous patriarch would have nothing of them (14:17-24). If indeed the Torah recorded this episode to convey something of Sodom's iniquity, on the reasonable premise that the king of the town was not only their monarch but the embodiment (or perhaps the author) of their values, then we would have to tentatively conclude that Sodom was a place of rare selfishness and craven self-interest, where ingratitude and utter lack of appreciation reigned.
INJUSTICE AND UNRIGHTEOUSNESS
It is in our Parasha that thread of Sodomite impiety is taken up once more. Even before the messengers arrive in the town to prove its moral mettle, the text of the Torah pointedly incriminates the inhabitants. The passage states:
The men arose from there and surveyed Sodom, and Avraham accompanied them to send them on their way. God said: "Shall I conceal from Avraham what I intend to do? Avraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all of the peoples of the earth will be blessed on his account. FOR I KNOW HIM – HE WILL COMMAND HIS CHILDREN AND HIS HOUSEHOLD AFTER HIM TO EXECUTE RIGHTEOUSNESS AND JUSTICE, in order that God might bring upon Avraham all that he spoke concerning him" (18:16-19).
By highlighting Avraham's sensitivity to righteousness and justice, while stressing his attention to perpetuating that legacy so that all of the earth's inhabitants might one day be blessed, the Torah seems to indicate, by conspicuous contrast, Sodom's failures. The verses that immediately follow leave no doubt concerning this reading of the passage:
God said: The outcry of Sodom and 'Amora is great, and their transgressions are very grave. I will go down to see if they have done as that outcry indicates, for if they have, then I shall utterly destroy them…(18:20-21).
Avraham, then, standing on the crest of the Chevron range, is the paradigm of righteousness, the champion of justice, the advocate for moral education and for the ethical improvement of humanity. Sodom, shimmering below in the verdant valley of the Yarden, repudiates those values, while slowly stirring the bubbling cauldron of its own downfall.
The most explicit statement of Sodom's iniquity is, of course, the episode of the messengers' arrival. Two of them arrive at the town square in the guise of tired wayfarers, as the afternoon sun, sated with yet another day of witnessing the city's oppression, begins its welcome descent. The shadows lengthen across the paved plaza, but no one takes even the slightest interest in the fate of the tired travelers. Only Lot (himself a foreigner) invites them, but making clear at the outset that they must leave early on the morrow. Graciously, he brings them home and prepares a modest meal, but before they can retire for the night, an ominous and loud knocking is heard at the door. The people of Sodom, "all of them, great and small, young and old" have in the meantime surrounded the house and now raucously demand the surrender of the guests, "so that we may abuse them!" (19:5). Lot, in his most noble moment, demurs. Pleading with them to respect the ancient tradition of domestic refuge, as he closes the door and places himself in between, his entreaties are to no avail. The people of Sodom stridently insist, and only the intervention of the angelic travelers changes the course of the events.
Thus, added to the heavy burden of selfishness, ingratitude, injustice and corruption that hangs over Sodom like a poison cloud, must now be added the weight of sexual immorality and bloodlust. And there is not a individual in that writhing mass, save Lot himself, willing to oppose the lynching! There is, of course, only one other transgression from this troubling list of infamy, one more cardinal principle that lies at the foundations of any functioning society and that every adherent of Jewish tradition must regard with special revulsion: the sin of idolatry. Is there anywhere in the text that alludes to this most insidious of crimes, the first cause of moral relativism and the utter antithesis of all that Avraham and Sarah represent?
ALLUSIONS TO IDOLATRY
Our Parasha is silent on this matter, perhaps taking it as a given that the Sodomites, entrenched in Canaanite culture, must also have adopted the idolatry, so pervasive across the entire region, as their banner. But elsewhere in the Torah the matter seems to be spelled out almost explicitly. It is Moshe himself, living some four centuries after the immolation of Sodom, who draws the link. Speaking to the people of Israel on the eve of his death, Moshe renews the covenant between them and God, spelling out their awesome responsibility to choose the good. In the course of his discourse, he solemnly cautions them one final time concerning the wiles of Canaanite idolatry and then, in the same breath, invokes the unholy name of Sodom:
All of you stand before God your Lord today, your tribal leaders, elders, and your officers, all of the people of Israel. Your children and your wives, and the convert who dwells in your midst, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. In order to include you in the covenant of God your Lord and in its provisions, that God your Lord seals with you this day…For your remember how we dwelt in the land of Egypt and how we traversed through the nations. You saw their abominations and their disgrace, the wood and the stone, the silver and the gold that they venerated. Lest there be among you a man or a woman, a family or a tribe whose heart turns away from God our Lord, to go and to worship the gods of those nations, lest there be among you a root that brings forth gall and wormwood…God will not want to forgive him, for God's anger and rage will smolder against that man, so that all of the curses recorded in this book shall befall him, and God will blot out his name from underneath the heavens…The last generation, the children who shall arise after you, the foreigner who shall come from a far-off land, shall see the plagues of that land and its sicknesses that God has visited upon it. BRIMSTONE AND SALT, THE LAND SHALL BE ENTIRELY BURNT, IT SHALL NOT BE SOWN NOR SHALL IT BRING FORTH ANY VEGETATION AT ALL. IT SHALL BE LIKE THE OVERTHROW OF SODOM AND A'MORA, ADMA AND TZEVOTIM, THAT GOD OVERTHREW IN HIS ANGER AND IN HIS FURY…(It is because) they went and served other gods and bowed down to them, gods that they did not know and there were not apportioned to them…(Devarim 29:1-28).
Thus, considering the issue in its entirety, the Torah indicates without a doubt why Sodom was destroyed. The general pronouncement that its inhabitants were "very evil and iniquitous to God" (13:13) is simply a catchphrase for the kinds of failings that we know so well, those very evils whose avoidance we rightly regard as the touchstone of ethical monotheism. The lesson for us is patently clear, but there is perhaps another dimension to the discussion. While we often regard the narratives of Sefer Bereishit as arresting tales of our forefathers and foremothers and not much more, the truth of the matter is that the stories preserved in its parashiyot are at the very core of our consciousness as Jews and as sensitive human beings. It is certainly true that Sefer Bereishit is almost entirely absent of anything that we might regard as normative rulings, commandments in the post-Sinaitic mold, or legal pronouncements after the manner of a code of law. And yet the examples set by its protagonists, for the good and for the evil, are the living expressions of those very laws that are left unstated until later. The edifice of ethical monotheism, first raised up in Sefer Shemot as the people of Israel stand at Mount Sinai and hear God's word, is constructed upon a solid foundation – these abiding narratives that describe the challenges and setbacks, the tribulations and the triumphs of our ancestors who were first called by God to build a better world. "For I know him – he will command his children and his household after him to execute righteousness and justice, in order that God might bring upon Avraham all that he spoke concerning him" (18:16-19).
For further study: see the disturbing passage of Yechezkel Chapter 16 (especially verse 49), where this outspoken prophet of the late First Temple era describes the iniquities of Sodom, in the context of his harsh criticism of the people of Israel who adopted their evil ways. See also the commentary of the Ramban in our Parasha on 19:5 where he elaborates on the matter.