“Sodom: The Home of Institutionalized Evil”
(updated and revised from Vayeira 5763-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to have lived in Sodom? There are, after all, many places in the world, even today, that are perfidiously evil. But what specifically was it about Sodom that repulsed G-d so profoundly that He felt compelled to destroy it?

In Genesis 13:13, scripture depicts the inhabitants of Sodom: וְאַנְשֵׁי סְדֹם רָעִים וְחַטָּאִים לַהשׁם מְאֹד, and the people of Sodom were wicked and sinful toward G-d exceedingly. What is the meaning of the word “exceedingly?”

According to the Midrash, (Talmud, Sanhedrin, 109b), there was a particularly pernicious perversion to the evil of Sodom. The Midrash suggests that the people of Sodom even practiced mitzvot, such as the mitzvah of הַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִיםHachnasat Orchim–of hospitality and welcoming guests, but in a perverted manner. Travelers arriving in Sodom, would be “warmly” welcomed by the Sodomite people. If the guest were tall, he would be placed in a hotel with short beds. If the guest was short they would place him in a hotel with long beds. To make certain that the guest was entirely “comfortable,” they would either stretch the guest’s limbs and pull them out of their sockets, or amputate their limbs to make certain that they fit the beds properly. The Midrash is obviously underscoring the fact that the Sodomites did believe in the value of hospitality–but in a most perverted way.

Similarly, the Midrash, (Talmud, Sanhedrin, 109b), expands on the verses, Genesis 18:21-22. In those verses G-d says that because the outcry of Sodom and Gemorrah has become so great and because their sin is so very grave, אֵרְדָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה, וְאִם לֹא, אֵדָעָה. “I [G-d] will descend and see if they act in accordance with its outcry which has come to Me–then destruction. And if not, I will know.”

Now the word הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ could refer to the cry of the city Sodom. However, the Midrash suggests that since the word is a feminine possessive, and literally means “her cry,” that it refers to the cry of a woman. The Midrash says that there was a young woman in Sodom, (they say it was actually Paltith, the daughter of Lot), who had compassion on a newly-arrived poor person. Now the laws of Sodom declared it illegal for anyone to help any poor person. In fact, a popular sport in Sodom was to watch poor people languish from hunger and die of starvation. So, when the Sodomites noticed that this particular poor person was not dying of hunger, they sent their Sodomite “FBI” agents to investigate. It was soon discovered that Paltith, the daughter of Lot, was secreting food to the unfortunate soul. Paltith was then taken out and smeared with honey so the bees would sting her to death, or burned alive at the stake. The cries that G-d hears, and to which He responds, were the cries of poor Paltith.

Further in the biblical narrative, when Lot takes the guests, (who are really angels), into his home, and the people of Sodom come to presumably sexually attack them, Lot pleads with his Sodomite neighbors, Genesis 19:7, אַל נָא אַחַי תָּרֵעוּ, “I beg of you my brothers, do not act wickedly. I have two daughters,” Lot says, “who have never known a man. I shall bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. But to these men do nothing, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof.” Once again, we see the perversion of a good value. Lot is surely trying to protect his guests, but at the same time, he is prepared to throw his daughters to the “wolves” who will undoubtedly ravish them. A normal parent would do everything in his power, even give up his life, to save and secure his children.

We see that Sodom had so perverted the values of humanity, that virtue in Sodom had become vice, and vice had become virtue.

Elie Wiesel tells a fascinating story of a prophet who comes to Sodom, and begins to prophecy that Sodom will be destroyed if the people do not repent. At first, the people of Sodom are amused that any prophet would have the temerity to come to the most wicked place on the face of the earth, to try to persuade them to repent. After a while, they tire of his presence and of his haranguing prophecies and begin to taunt him and beat him, heave garbage at him, and make his life miserable. But the prophet was not to be deterred, and remained determined to continue his urgent prophecy.

After two or three years, a young child approached the prophet. “Mr. Prophet,” he said. “Of all the places on earth, why did you choose to prophecy in Sodom? You know its well-deserved reputation for being the most evil place on the face of the earth?” The prophet replied, “When I first arrived and began to prophecy, I truly believed that my words would be effective, and that the people of Sodom would heed my warnings and repent.” “But you see,” said the youngster, “Your words have fallen on deaf ears, and you are now the object of scorn and ridicule. Why then do you continue to prophecy?” Responded the prophet, “When I first began to prophecy, I thought I would change the people of Sodom. Now I continue to prophecy, in the hope that the people of Sodom do not change me!”

While, thankfully, most of our world is not Sodom, there are sinister Sodom-like elements to be found in many parts of the globe. If we think that we are protected from the influences of Sodom, we are gravely mistaken. Of course, it is vitally important to make every effort to live in healthy environments where we can raise good and moral children. And, yet, at the same time, no matter how positive the environment, there will always be negative elements. And so, it is incumbent upon us to continue prophesying–so that Sodom doesn’t change us, so that the destructive negative influences don’t impact on us, and that we and our families will be able to live good and noble lives.

May you be blessed.