(Want to learn more about Jewish views on morality? Visit Ethics and Values.)
This week’s parashah is Vayera. Within its verses we find some of the most familiar, and troubling, stories in the Torah. For Vayera contains within it the stories of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac on Mt. Moriah), the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham and Sarah, and the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is on this last narrative that I would like to focus my d’var torah for this week.
In our contemporary lexicon, the phrase “Sodom and Gomorrah” has become synonymous with extreme depravity and immorality, with a particularly sexual connotation. Within the narrative in Bereshit it would seem that sexual immorality is only part of the evil of Sodom. Contrary to popular usage it is also clear from the reading of the narrative that it is not homosexuality that is the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah (though Jerry Falwell and others might disagree). The people of Sodom did demand that Lot (Abraham and Sarah’s nephew) hand over the strangers in their house (actually messengers of God sent to tell Lot of the impending doom) so that “we may know them,” which is clearly a sexual reference in terms of biblical Hebrew. However, what makes them sinful according to our Sages is not sexual desire or lust, but rather their desire to abuse and humiliate other human beings because they are strangers in their midst. The two messengers could just has easily have been women and the people’s response would have been the same. The Sages teach us that only the wealthy were welcome as guests in Sodom. The poor were to be expelled or killed.
We read in Midrash Pirkei Eliezer (a collection of rabbinic homilies collected in the 3rd and 4th centuries in the land of Israel) that any resident of these cities who attempted to give food or aid to a poor person was subject to death. As a matter of fact, this same midrash tells us that Lot’s daughter was convicted of giving bread to a poor person each time she went to the well for water and, as the people began her execution, she cried out to God. It was this cry that reached God and prompted God to send the messengers (angels) to Sodom and Gomorrah to see if their sin was as great as her cry would imply.
In his book of Torah commentary Jewish Values in an Open Society, the economist and business ethicist Meir Tamari writes about the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as the sin of “Economic Egoism.” He reminds us that according to our Sages the greed and desire for wealth on the part of the residents was insatiable. Anyone who got in their way, such as a poor person who might ask for some of their money or food, was expendable. All common human decencies were anathema to the Sodomites. This even affected Lot who, thanks to being raised by Abraham and Sarah, still knew to offer the strangers – angels hospitality. Yet he was still willing to give over his daughters to satisfy the people’s sexual lust rather than hand over his guests. Our Sages taught “it is the custom of the world that a man is prepared to kill or be killed in order to protect his wife and daughters, yet this one [Lot] is willing to give his daughters over to sexual abuse.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Bereyshit 36). Even Lot had begun to take on the characteristics of his neighbors and so he needed to be rescued before he and his family became just as depraved as the remainder of the residents.
The callousness of the residents that was so infectious was based on this desire to always have more for oneself – more money, more land, more jewels, more servants. No thought was given to what others had. No one cared about helping those less fortunate. “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” was the ethic of Sodom and Gomorrah (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 5:11). At first this would seem to be a sensible and harmless ethic, and yet it places the emphasis on individual possessions and financial gain and ignores the demand that we care for all of humanity. Tamari reminds us that, unlike the Talmudic belief that certain urges decrease when they remain unfulfilled and others, such as hunger, increase when unfulfilled, the urge for monetary and material gain increases when one has less and when one amasses more if left unchecked. This leads to that sense of economic egoism of which Tamari speaks.
We all remember the legendary greed of the 80’s as epitomized by the line from the movie Wall Street that “greed is good.” We remember the collapse of the Savings and Loan industry that was, in part, fueled by this greed. We all know of pyramid schemes and other scams that are the result of the greed of certain individuals. In more recent memory, we saw all too well what greed could do as we watched the collapse of Enron and other corporations as well as the drastic decline of the stock market.
One might say that the latter was merely a corrective that was bound to happen and that is has nothing to do with greed—and one would be correct. However, the extent of the decline and the other collapses in our economy were in part brought about by the greed of some which then spread many. For one central lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah is that the cities were destroyed not because of the sins of a few individuals, but those of the society as a whole. Not even ten righteous people, the minimum to constitute a community, could be found in the cities. The entire community had become selfish and evil, and so they brought about their own destruction.
This story can serve as a warning to us today. I still believe that humanity and society is basically good, and that most people want to care for those in need. But I also believe that the desire for wealth and security, which is a natural and healthy drive, can overtake us if we are not careful. It is this desire in its extreme form that brought about the destruction of the “Great Recession.” The economic and societal woes in full flower then should serve as a wake-up call and a warning, just as I’m sure the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah should have to surrounding cities, as well as to Lot and his family.
May our society heed the warning and remember that serving others in need and the community at large is just as important as serving oneself and one’s needs. If we remember to keep this balance and to avoid economic egoism – and if we remind our leaders in both the worlds of business and politics of this – then we will avoid the equivalent of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah for our society as a whole.