Parshat Lech Lecha: Possessiveness – the character of a Sodomite

Article rank 31 Oct 2014Jerusalem Post• By RABBI SHMUEL RABINOWITZ

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we encounter the people of Sodom for the first time: that same city that had such an abundance of natural resources that the Torah compared it to the Garden of Eden. The inhabitants of Sodom merited a rare appellation that appears only once in the entire Bible:
“And the people of Sodom were very evil and sinful against the Lord.” (Genesis 13:13)
How was this evil of the people of Sodom expressed? The Torah does not explicitly describe this, but in the next parsha, Vayera, we encounter the people of Sodom again when they try to prevent Lot, Avraham Avinu’s nephew, from hosting two guests in his house for the night. Their sin, therefore, was in that they opposed, in principle, helping others.
Is this, then, the summation of the sins of the people of Sodom, and for this alone are they termed “evil and sinful”? The Midrash added a few details to the story of the people of Sodom which change the picture and explain the meaning of the extreme denunciation which they merited:
“They declared in Sodom: ‘Anyone who is holding in his hand a piece of bread for the poor or indigent – will be burned by fire!’
“There were two young girls who went down to drink and fill up their water jugs. One said to her friend: ‘ Why do you look so sickly?’ She answered: ‘My food is finished and I am dying.’ What did she do, she filled her jug with flour and they exchanged jugs, each taking what the other was holding. When the people of Sodom noticed, they took it and burned her. The Blessed Be He said: ‘Even if I wish to remain silent, the verdict of the young girl does not allow me to stay silent.’” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, 25; Midrash Raba Vayera 49)
This horrifying story, especially the opening declaration forbidding charity or assistance to the poor, teaches us that the people of Sodom descended to unimaginable moral lows. Not only did they avoid doing anything charitable, but they forbade charitable acts and made charity a sin punishable by death. They actually turned the tables, creating legislation that depicted a moral act as a negative one.
What could possibly have motivated such a warped and inhumane outlook as this? What caused the people of Sodom to legislate such evil laws? How did they reach such moral lows as to create laws that forbid assisting the needy?
We found the answer to these questions in the words of the Mishna:
“One who says ‘ What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours’… this is the character of a Sodomite.” (Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 5, Mishna 10)
“Character of a Sodomite” became a halachic (Jewish law) term, and even a legal one. It is a concept which states, “Don’t give to me, and I will not give to you.” This is not talking about people who try to steal from another (as we read about the generation of the flood), but a possessive society that zealously maintains each person’s personal property. The evil law forbidding assistance to the poor grew out of this possessive conception.
The people of Sodom understood very well that if one of them assists another, the act will obligate everyone to behave likewise. They preferred not receiving help if only not to be obligated to give anything to anyone else. This understanding led them to the distorted legislation which forbids offering help, and even declares a death sentence on anyone who helps another. For this reason, Yam Hamelach (“The Sea of Salt”) – on whose shores the city of Sodom once sat – is termed the Dead Sea, as opposed to the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) which was nicknamed the Sea of Life. The Kinneret takes water and bequeaths it to the Jordan River and offers the water elsewhere. But the Dead Sea only takes water. It gets water from the Jordan River but does not bequeath its waters elsewhere. This is exactly the character of a Sodomite.
Undoubtedly, a normal person’s behavior is a far cry from that of the Sodomites. But also a regular man could, G-d forbid, err by mistake in the concept that stood at the foundation of their actions. An economic system that tries to attain a life of welfare for all of its citizens must be careful that it is not guided by the principles of the Character of a Sodomite. We must always remember that every person was created in the image of G-d, and as such is worthy of respect and life under reasonable human conditions. And if a man cannot attain those by himself, then society is obligated to lend a hand, to support, and to help him lead a life of dignity.