A Modern-Day Sodom?

Image: The Sonoran Desert in Arizona (by icondigital / Pixabay)

The Washington Post recently printed a first-person account by a geographer named Scott Warren. He has been charged with a felony for giving water and food to refugees in the Sonoran desert. For saving lives, Warren faces up to 20 years in prison.

The policy of routing refugees through the deadliest parts of the desert goes back to the Clinton Administration, by the way. The Trump Administration has added the enforcement of rules against offering any assistance, even water, to those trekking through that desert.

Scott Warren’s story reminded me immediately of a midrash taught by our sages. They told a story they told about their notion of the people most displeasing to God, so displeasing that they merited being burned alive along with their entire region. It is the story of the people of Sodom.

The first mention of the story is in Genesis 13:

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt.
So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;
Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom.
Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the LORD.

Genesis 13:10-13

Next we get the well-known story in Genesis 18-19, in which sends two “men” (angels) to investigate an “outcry” from Sodom. It begins:

Then the LORD said, “The outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

Genesis 18: 20-22

Abraham then famously bargained for the lives of Sodom, getting God to agree to spare the city if 10 good people could be found there.

The angels who “went on” to Sodom were greeted by Lot, who was anxious to get them out of the public square and to conceal them in his house. He does that because Sodom is hateful to strangers, and he knows something terrible will happen to them if they are not quickly out of sight. Sure enough, a crowd forms at Lot’s door, clamoring to rape the men. Lot refuses to release them to the crowd. Later, God rains fire down on the city, and it is completely destroyed because 10 good men could not be found. (Genesis 19)

The sages told more stories about Sodom, fleshing out the tale in the Torah. What had the people done to merit death by fire? Here are some of the stories:

R. Levi said: [God said]: ‘Even if I wished to keep silent, justice for a certain maiden (ribah) does not permit Me to keep silent.’
For it once happened that two girls went down to draw water from a well.
One [young woman] said to the other, ‘Why are you so pale?’
‘My family has no more food left and we are ready to die,’ she replied.
What did she [the first young woman] do? She filled her pitcher with flour and they exchanged [their pitchers], each taking the other’s.
When they [the Sodomites] discovered this, they took and burnt her.
Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Even if I desired to be silent, justice for that young girl does not permit Me to keep silent.

Genesis Rabbah 49:6

and another, about the cruelty to poor men:

If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a dinar (coin,) upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When he died, each [resident] came and took back his [dinar]. 

Sanhedrin 109b

There is another story about a young woman who tried to give help to a hungry man:

A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. When the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written, And the Lord said, The cry ( זעקת ) of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great: whereon Rab Judah commented in Rab’s name: On account of the maiden [ribah]

Sanhedrin 109b

And a later midrash tells us about a variety of cruel practices:

Rabbi Zeira said: “The people of Sdom were the wealthiest people in the world since they were from the fattest and best of the land and all of their early needs could be derived from it, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust” (Job 28:6) When a person wanted to go out and get for himself vegetables, he would say to his servant, take for me an issar worth of greens. He would go and take for him greens and find in its place gold, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust.” And silver would come out of it, as it is written: “There is a mine for silver.” (Job 28:1) Precious stones and jewels would come out of it: “Its rocks are a source of sapphire.” (verse 6); bread would be brought forth from it: “earth out of which food grows” (verse 5); and they did not trust in the shadow of their Creator but rather in their wealth; for their wealth pushed aside their fear of Heaven: “men who trust in their riches” (Psalms 49:7)

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said: They were not sufficiently concerned with the honor of their Creator to provide food for guests and strangers but rather they would cut of the branches of fruit trees above the fruit so as not to provide benefit to birds of the heavens: “No bird of prey knows the path of it.” (Job 28:7)

Rabbi Netanel said: They set up as their judges false judges who ruled with regard to any guest or stranger who entered Sodom, that they should defraud them in their crooked judgment and set them out naked, as it is written: “And the stranger they cheated without justice.” (Ezekiel 22:29) And satisfied with the harvest of the land – they lived in security and peace and quiet without fear of war from their surroundings satiated with all good things and not strengthening the hand of either the poor or the impoverished with food: “Behold this was the son of Sodom your sister.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

– Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 25

For these crimes, God blasted the city Sodom, leaving nothing but a salty mineral desert and a deadly sea beside it. To this day, if you visit the Dead Sea, you will see nothing alive there.

I fear for our souls.

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Questions for Yom Kippur

Image: A group of Jews, walking towards dawn and dressed for prayer. (Afuta/Shutterstock)

What kind of person am I?

That’s the question at the bottom of Yom Kippur. We pause for a day and confront the unadorned self.

A passage in the very ancient text Pirkei Avot (Fundamental Teachings) highlights the problem in trying to see ourselves clearly:

There are four temperaments among people: the one who says “what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” – that’s an average temperament. And there are some who say that is the temperament of Sodom. A second type is one who says “what is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine”– that is an ignoramus. A third type is one who says “what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours”– that is a pious person. A final type is one who says “what is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine” – that is a wicked person. – Pirkei Avot 5:10

Extremes are easy.  The ignorant, the saint, the wicked person – those are caricatures, really. I suggest that the rabbis only bring them up in order to make a point about the first “temperament” they list.

The “average” person seems pretty reasonable and simple: they say, “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours.”

The mindset “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours” can be seen as a reasonable, even as a healthy way to see the world. The phrase “good boundaries” comes to mind.

Then the rabbis toss in a grenade: “And there are some who say that is the temperament of Sodom.” Wait – what?

The rabbis’ understanding of the people of Sodom was that they were a deeply selfish, inhospitable people. Unlike the Christian commentaries on the story of Sodom, which focus on sexual sins, rabbinic commentaries on Sodom focus on the way the people of Sodom treated visitors and poor people.

After a while travellers avoided these cities, but if some poor devil was betrayed occasionally into entering them, they would give him gold and silver, but never any bread, so that he was bound to die of starvation. Once he was dead, the residents of the city came and took back the marked gold and silver which they had given him, and they would quarrel about the distribution of his clothes, for they would bury him naked…

The cause of their cruelty was their exceeding great wealth. Their soil was gold, and in their miserliness and their greed for more and more gold, they wanted to prevent strangers from enjoying aught of their riches…

Their laws were calculated to do injury to the poor. The richer a man, the more was he favored before the law.   – from Legends of the Jews, by Lewis Ginsberg

The rabbis are raising making a point: living a good life requires periodic questioning. Where is the line between “good boundaries” and cruel selfishness? When I say, “That is not my problem” am I practicing reasonable self-care or am I being selfish?

The Torah recognizes that it is not easy for people to share with others. It sets measures for what must be shared, setting certain minimums of sharing as commandments:

When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield — in the third year, the year of the tithe — and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, orphan, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before Adonai your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments – Deuteronomy 26:12-13

By setting minimums, it allows a Jew to say, “I have fulfilled the commandment.” This way the anxiety about “how much is enough?” is laid to rest. However, it can also offer a shelter in legalisms, against which Isaiah and the other prophets railed:

Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram’s horn! Declare to My people their transgression, to the House of Jacob their sin. To be sure, they seek Me daily, eager to learn My ways. Like a nation that does what is right, that has not abandoned the laws of its God, they ask Me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God: “Why, when we fasted, did You not see when we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! – Isaiah 58:1-7

For the prophets, it was not enough to follow the letter of the law. The spirit of the Torah was even more important, and that spirit insisted that our willingness to share should be limited only by the need before us.

It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin. Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; Your vindicator shall march before you, the presence of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then, when you call, the Lord will answer; When you cry, the Lord will say: Here I am. – Isaiah 58:7-11

Centuries of living in the real world taught our ancestors that a balance had to be struck between needs and resources. Maimonides recognized that limitless giving was a problem, inserting the qualifier “providing the giver can afford it”:

It is a positive commandment to give charity to the poor, as is appropriate to the poor person, providing the giver can afford it, as it says, “You shall open your hand to the poor,” and “You shall strengthen the stranger who dwells with you,” and “Your fellow shall live with you.” – Matenot Aniyim, 7:1

He also raised the issue of the responsibilities of those asking for support:

One should always push himself, and live in straits rather than rely on others and not impose himself on the community.

Anyone who takes charity without needing it will come to need it before she dies…Anyone who is unable to survive without charity but refuses it is guilty of bloodshed…And anyone who needs charity but holds off as much as possible and takes as little as possible will come to see the time when she is able to sustain others from her own wealth. Concerning such as her it is written, “Blessed be the person who trusts in God.” – Matenot Aniyim 10:18-19

The 20th century brought a magnitude of need to the world that we had never seen before. Populations exploded. Ideologies abounded. Even for those who were secure, there was a feeling that there was not enough: not enough to share, not enough to go around. Some minority groups were scapegoated: “If it weren’t for them, we would feel secure!” We all know where that led.

After suffering through the travails of a POW camp during WWII, as well as the Holocaust (in which much of his family was murdered and all were threatened)  the great French philosopher and Talmudist Emmanuel Levinas rejected the notion of “mine” altogether:

… the problem of a hungry world can be resolved only if the food of the owners and those who are provided for ceases to appear to them as inalienable property, but is recognized as a gift they have received for which thanks must be given and to which others have a right. Scarcity is a social and moral problem and not exclusively an economic one. – Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 132

Levinas suggests that we should all strive to have a pious temperament (“what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.”) I do not know if that is a reasonable expectation, but I know that Levinas developed his thought not in an ivory tower but in the cauldron of the Shoah. I have to take him seriously, whether ultimately I follow his path or not.

We have just begun the 21st century, and so far it has brought more challenges. All the things that were difficult in the 20th century (growing population, gaps between the have-nots and the haves, warring ideologies) are with us at what feels like an exponential increase. Add to that the influences of mass media and the internet: we live in a fog of words and we are afraid.

I am not offering answers today, I am raising questions. What do I owe others? What about people who scare me? What about people that I feel pose a risk to my security? What do I owe them? What do I owe my children? What do I owe myself?

Where are the healthy boundaries? When is it just fear and selfishness?

What kind of person am I?

Yom Kippur offers us time and space to consider these questions. Fortunately we do not consider them alone: we gather in synagogue to pray and to listen to the growling of our stomachs. The growls have much to tell us about our own fears and about the needs of others. Our fellows around us are there to remind us that we do not have to do this alone.

As a friend said to me the day I became a Jew: “The bad news is, you will never be alone again. The good news is, you will never be alone again. Welcome to the tribe.”