“Lessons from the Evil of Sodom”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, after the messengers (who were really angels) inform Abraham that his wife, Sarah, will give birth, the “men” rise to leave and gaze toward Sodom, as Abraham escorts them from his home.

The Torah (Genesis 18:17) then states that G-d says to Himself: “Hahm’chah’seh ah’nee may’Avraham ah’sher ah’nee oh’seh?” Shall I conceal from Abraham that which I intend to do [to Sodom]? The Torah explains that since Abraham is destined to become a great and mighty nation and will teach his values of kindness and justice to these future generations, G-d needs to tell him about His plans to destroy Sodom. Otherwise, people will wonder, if Abraham is so great, how could G-d have hidden this from him.

In my Torah message of Vayeira 5763-2002, I outlined many of the infamous sins of Sodom, underscoring the unique wickedness of the city’s inhabitants. Virtue was transformed into vice and vice became virtue. While it is true that the inhabitants of Sodom welcomed guests, once the newcomers entered the city they were subject to the iniquitous “Sodomite hospitality.”

Based on an interpretation of the words “Ha’k’tza’ah’ka’tah,” was it like her cry (Genesis 18:21-22), the Midrash tells us that helping others was a particularly heinous offense in Sodom. The Midrash maintains that G-d heard the cries of a woman (Chutzpit, Lot’s daughter) who had been sentenced to burn at the stake for coming to the aid of a starving person. At that point, G-d decided to take action.

In Genesis 19:7, we learn that the Sodomite men actually came to sexually assault Lot’s guests (who were also angels). We also see that Lot himself had become so corrupted by his environment, and his values had become so distorted, that he offers his own daughters to the Sodomite attackers in the hope that they will not harm his guests.

The Torah tells us in Genesis 18:23-33 that Abraham pleads on behalf of the city of Sodom: “Hah’ahf tis’peh tzaddik eem rah’shah?” Will You [G-d] destroy the righteous along with the wicked? Abraham argues with G-d to spare the city on behalf of its righteous inhabitants. Abraham first asks G-d to spare the city if there will be found 50 righteous people in Sodom, then on behalf of 45 righteous, then 40, then 30, then 20, and finally 10. In each instance, G-d agrees to spare the city. Even for ten righteous people G-d says (Genesis 18:32): I will not destroy [the city] on account of the 10. At that point, Abraham stops pleading.

The numbers that are mentioned by Abraham are puzzling since they do not appear to be a logical sequence.

I have always found Rashi’s explanation regarding the specific numbers not only intriguing, but more like a wake-up call. Quoting the Midrash, Rashi states that there were “five boroughs” in Sodom. Any borough in which 10 righteous people reside would be spared. Boroughs that did not have 10 righteous people would be destroyed, which explains Abraham’s petitioning for 40, 30, 20, and then 10. Rashi then explains that if only 9 righteous men were to be found in a borough, then You, G-d, the Divine Presence, will join the 9 to constitute a minyan of righteous people, in order to save that borough.

A verse that I have always found particularly intriguing is the one that follows the announcement by the angels that Sodom will be destroyed. The angels advise Lot to evacuate his entire family, including his sons-in-law, his sons, and daughters (Genesis 19:12), and to remove all that they possess from the city.

The Torah (Genesis 19:14) describes Lot calling to his sons-in-law and pleading: “Koo’moo, tzh’ooh min ha’mah’kohm hah’zeh, kee mahsh’chit Hashem eht hah’eer,” Get up and leave this place, for G-d is about destroy the city! The sons-in-law reject Lot’s warning. In fact, the Torah informs us that, “Vah’y’hee chim’tzah’chayk b’ay’nay chah’tah’nahv,” He [Lot] seemed as if he were joking in the eyes of his sons-in-law. The Midrash tells us that his sons-in-law mocked Lot, saying to him: “Oh fool! Violins, cymbals and flutes resound in the city, and you say that Sodom will be destroyed?!”

The hubris of the sons-in-law and their refusal to accept reality has always resonated with me profoundly: “Violins, cymbals and flutes resound in the city, and you say that Sodom will be destroyed?!” There are world class musical centers: Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music! Extraordinary museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Natural History! The Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera! There are two of the tallest buildings in the world–the World Trade Center–and there is the Statue of Liberty, the George Washington Bridge–nothing can harm us!

Obviously, Sodom was a significant cultural center in its time. Who knows if any ancient contemporary city paralleled Sodom’s wealth, prosperity or culture? As a result of its prominence and abundance, its citizens simply refused to accept that it might be vulnerable, and that the gold in the streets would be unable to protect them from harm.

How brilliantly and deftly our rabbis portray human frailties, the inability to accept reality and see beyond momentary prosperity and goodness. Who would ever imagine that Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns would suddenly cease to exist, or that the Twin Towers could be brought down by terrorists aboard two commercial jetliners?

Through this homiletical message our rabbis plead with us: Don’t take anything for granted! Few things are permanent. The cycle of life and the cycle of wealth can change in a moment. Don’t delude yourselves. There are threats that must be taken seriously. There are mortal enemies who are determined to destroy Israel, and will stop at nothing to accomplish their nefarious objective. Take them seriously. The thread of assimilation and intermarriage is more than a mere thread, it is a rope that is strangling Jewish life. Diaspora Jewry is rapidly vanishing. Decadent behavior in our society is perniciously destroying the moral fiber of our country. Global warming seems to be the real thing. We must be concerned. Cigarette smoking is lethal. The millions who smoke need our help. America may very well be in decline–culturally, economically and morally. Only G-d is eternal. Nothing else. Not America, not Europe, not even Israel!

Let us not look these threats in the face and respond as mockers, and, like Lot’s sons-in-law, react skeptically as if to say that we are impervious to danger. We are not impervious. We need to acknowledge the threats. We need to confront the threats. We need to address the threats, before we too are consumed by fire and brimstone, or worse.

May you be blessed.