Sodom: The Facts

From Days are Coming by Rabbi Ezriel Tauber Feldheim, 1992
"Preventing another from having a benefit when one loses nothing is the trait of Sodom."

Contrary to the popular misconception, Sodom was not a lawless society whose inhabitants committed their acts with unrestrained abandon. They had a very strong town government which promulgated and enforced many laws. Furthermore, they were an extremely wealthy society who put great effort into appearing civilized [ Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer].

This latter point is evident from the Talmudic teaching: One who says "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours," is an average person (neither righteous or wicked); others contend that this attitude resembles the manner of Sodom [ Avos, chapter 5].

Defining the above attitude as "the manner of Sodom" is surprising. Why is it bad to say, "What is mine is mine"? This may not be overly righteous, but cant it be associated with the society notorious for evil? After all, the attitude expressed above demands nothing of anyone else and even says, "What is yours is yours."

However, the Maharal explains that such an individual does not say, "What is yours is yours" out of generosity. Rather, his entire mind-set is not to share what he has, and in order to do so, he is willing to let the other person retain what he has. On the outside, he appears to be a decent person, yet on the inside his entire orientation is toward selfishness.

The point is driven home by a situation discussed in Torah law [Chosen Mishpat 174]: Our sages discuss a case where two brothers or partners wish to divide a field equally, and one wishes to take the half bordering on the property that he already owns. He wishes to have a single piece of land, rather than two pieces divided by another field. According to Jewish law, he has a right to that portion, and if the other person does not wish to relinquish it, he can be coerced by the courts. Since the one has no loss, and the other has a benefit, he has no right to oppose such a settlement. "Preventing another from having a benefit when one loses nothing is the trait of Sodom."

Sodom, therefore, was a society based on absolute selfishness. Their self-centeredness reached such proportions that they could not bear to see others possess anything, even if it did not affect them at all. Yet, they did not want other people (and maybe even themselves) to know how truly selfish they were. Therefore, they had laws.

Upon closer inspection, however, the laws were motivated by two considerations: a) to sanction their selfishness; 2) to do it under the guise of civility. The following examples attest to this.

One law was that although it was legal to give strangers charity, there was a stipulation: each coin distributed had to have the initials of the one who gave the charity. Not so bad. If you were a beggar, a coin with someone else's initials or without such a mark made no difference.

However, there was one more rule: Shopkeepers were forbidden to accept coins which had anyone's initials on them! Because of this, beggars regularly died of starvation. After they died, the Sodomites would search the body and retrieve their respective coins [ Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer; Targum Yonason; Sefer HaYashar].

Another law forbade hospitality to strangers. All travelers to Sodom would have to spend the night in the street. Apparently there was an exception to this rule. Some Sodomites prepared beds for strangers. However, if the wayfarer was tall, they would give him a short bed where his legs and feet hung over. If he was short, they would give him a long bed, wake him up during the night and pull vigorously at his hands and feet in order to "stretch" him so that he would "fit." The main purpose of these beds was simply for a good laugh [ Sanhedrin 109b].

Courts? Of course they had courts...what civilized people would not? Once, Eliezer (Abraham's servant) had business in Sodom. Seeing a Sodomite beating up a stranger, Eliezer interceded to protect the defenseless victim.

"Mind your own business," said the Sodomite, who then proceeded to take a rock and strike Eliezer in the head, drawing forth blood.

Eliezer took him to the local court of "justice." The judge passed sentenced, winked at his fellow Sodomite, and addressing Eliezer, said, "The man (the Sodomite) who struck you is a professional bloodletter. Pay him his fee. Eliezer, the victim, had to pay! (The Midrash continues that Eliezer then took a stone, bloodied the judge's face, and said, "I am also a professional bloodletter. Take the fee that you owe me and pay it to the one who struck me!" [Ibid])

Sodom had courts, and a criminal justice system. And if you asked a Sodomite, he would have told you that even if they were not always the best courts, they served their purpose.
Indeed they did! They sanctioned the inner human yearning and vice known as selfishness. In fact, not only did they sanction it, but they eventually mandated it. By the end, the law was that if anyone showed hospitality to a stranger, the hospitable person was given a slow, painful, cruel death [Ibid; Zohar 107; Sefer HaYashar].

It was not merely acts of injustice that particularly earned G-d's ire against the Sodomites. Injustice always earns His ire and will ultimately be dealt with justly. However, when selfishness becomes so deeply ingrained in a society that it is circumscribed by law, and "violations" of this code are dealt with in the most severe way, then there is no hope. Sodom reached the point where giving in to desires of selfishness was not only sanctioned, but mandated. And that is why only when they reached that point was their fate sealed.

The story of the destruction of Sodom is recorded in the Torah because its lesson is so relevant. Civilized societies can be breeding grounds for destructive human desires, no matter how many other good things they produce. No one ever said that depraved societies never did anything good. Quite the contrary. Sodom was a very wealthy, beautiful land; Egypt put up the Pyramids and made major breakthroughs in language and math; Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Germany [and America]--you can go right down the line and find the positive products of these civilizations.

In the end, though, each of them harbored within their lifestyle an unchecked human vice which led to the downfall of their respective empires. That glaring deficiency has remained indelibly marked so that even though the citizens of those civilizations did not recognize their faults, we, today, recognize them almost immediately.

Now we see through the thin veneer of civility which was Sodom. However, do we see it in this society? Are we willing to put our "free world" in its proper place? Do we dare take the risk of exposing it for what it is?

And it is a risk. For if we do expose it, then we may have to own up to certain conclusions which may make us uncomfortable.
From Days are Coming by Rabbi Ezriel Tauber Feldheim, 1992 pp 185-190 [paragraph titles added for emphasis]