Once upon a time, in the middle of the wilderness, there was a beautiful green valley. The valley was green because a river flowed through the valley, from the mountains in the North to a lake in the South. It was the most fertile place for miles around; food and flowers grew there, and the river and lake were full of fish. It was no surprise that many people wanted to live in that place. Anyone who passed by would take a look at it, and say, wow, I want to live there.
The people in those towns in the valley knew it was a wonderful place, and they wanted to take care of it. They thought that they would keep it beautiful and happy by outlawing anyone who wasn’t beautiful or happy. They especially didn’t want poor people to stick around, and so they passed a law saying that it was a crime to give any help to poor people. They didn’t like strangers, either – so it was the custom in the town to be mean to strangers, so they wouldn’t stay around for long.
When a poor person or a stranger left the valley, they’d look at each other and nod and say, see, we know how to keep this place nice.
A family came traveling through the valley, a man and his nephew and their wives and households. They were not poor people, in fact they were very well to do, and they were going to settle down. The nephew and his wife looked at the valley, and the town, and said, this is a beautiful place – we want to live here! The uncle and his wife looked at it, and said, well, yes, but the people are not very friendly. So the party split up, and the nephew, Lot, and his household moved to the valley. Abram, his uncle, continued traveling, but they stayed in touch.
Now that I’ve mentioned their names, maybe you recognize the story. Abram was Abraham our ancestor, and Lot was his nephew the shlmiel. (A shlmiel is a Yiddish word for a hapless fool, a mediocre sort of guy who can’t ever seem to make a wise choice.) Lot saw the beautiful rich valley, and he chose to live in Sodom. The Torah only tells us a little bit about Sodom, that it was a sinful place, but there is midrash that tells the rest of the story, about the law against helping poor people, and the culture of cruelty to strangers. In the Torah story, God is so angry at the meanness in Sodom and Gemorrah, that God blasts the place with fire. Abraham tries to bargain with God about it, but in the end, even Abraham cannot save the cities because there are so few good people in them. Lot has to flee in the night, and loses his wife when she makes the mistake of looking back.
If you visit that valley today – which you can do! – you will not see a beautiful green valley. You’ll see one of the most desolate places in the entire world, the desert valley around the Dead Sea. Nothing grows. The sand and rocks are full of salts that will burn your feet if you walk barefoot. The water in the Dead Sea is so poisonous that if you swallow even a single mouthful of it you’d have to be rushed to a hospital. It is so salty that any tiny cut will burn like fire when the water touches it.
Now you may be asking yourself: did God really blast a green valley and kill everyone in it because they were mean to poor people and strangers? Or was the Dead Sea just such a mysterious and dreadful place that our ancestors felt the need to come up with a story about the poisoned land?
My answer to that is that I wasn’t there, and I don’t know, and what’s more, I don’t think it matters. What I do know is that the story of Sodom and Gemorrah is a powerful story about Jewish values. It teaches us that hospitality is not a frill, but a core value, a mitzvah. It teaches us that tzedakah is not just charity, it means justice. It teaches us that a city that mistreats the weak, a city like Sodom, is a doomed city.
If Sodom is a giant lesson in what NOT to do, the Torah also gives us an example of the way we as Jews are called to live. Abraham Avinu, Abraham our ancestor, was no fool: he was an astute businessman. But he did not confuse being “smart” with being cruel. He ran to greet strangers, to offer them hospitality. The sages tell us that he and Sarah had a huge tent with open sides, where they welcomed many souls.
Nothing lives in the Dead Sea. There are no descendants of Sodom; it only survives as the name of an evil place. Yet the memory of Abraham is still green, as green as the Torah says the valley was before the sins of Sodom. Let us, the children of Abraham, keep his memory green, by acting as he did, with kindness and with generosity to all in need.