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Vayeira 5763-2002

“Sodom: The Home of Institutionalized Evil”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live 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 deeply that He was compelled to destroy it?

Scripture tells us in Genesis 13:13: “V’anshei S’dom rah’im vah’chah’tah’im la’Hashem m’od,” 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, there was a particular and unique perversion to the evil of Sodom. The Midrash suggests that the people of Sodom indeed practiced mitzvot, like the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim–of hospitality and welcoming guests, but in a perverted sense. If a traveler would arrive in Sodom, he would be “warmly” welcomed by the Sodomite people. If the guest was tall, they would place him in a hotel with short beds, and if he was short they would place him in a hotel with long beds. To make certain that the guest was “comfortable,” they would either pull the guest’s limbs out of their sockets, or amputate their limbs to make sure 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 expands on the verses of 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, “Er’dah nah v’er’eh ha’k’tzah’ah’kah’tah ha’bah’ah ay’lay ah’soo kah’lah, v’im lo, ay’dah’ah,” I 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 “ha’k’tzah’ah’kah’tah” could refer to the cry of the city Sodom. However, the Midrash suggests that, because the word is a feminine possessive and literally means “her cry,” it refers to a woman. The Midrash says that there was a young woman in Sodom (they say it was actually Chutzpit, the daughter of Lot), who had compassion on a poor person. Now the laws of Sodom declared it illegal for anyone to help a 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 Chutzpit, the daughter of Lot, was secreting some food to the unfortunate soul. Chutzpit was then taken out to the stake to be burned alive. The cries that G-d hears, and to which He responds, were the cries of Chutzpit.

Further in the story, 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), “Al nah ah’chai tah’ray’oo,” 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 to save and secure his children.

We see that Sodom has so perverted the values of humanity that virtue in Sodom has become vice, and vice has 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 a prophet would have the temerity of coming 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 prophecies and they begin to taunt him and beat him. They heave garbage at him and make his life miserable, but the prophet was determined to continue his urgent prophecy.

After two or three years, a young lad approaches the prophet. “Mr. Prophet,” he says. “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 really believed that my words would be effective, and that the people of Sodom would 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 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 will not change me!”

While most of our world is thankfully not Sodom, there are elements of Sodom to be found in many parts of our globe. If we think that we are protected from the influences of Sodom, we are gravely mistaken. Of course, it is important for us to choose a healthy environment in which to live and to raise our children. And yet, at the same time, no matter how positive the environment, there are always going to be negative elements. And so, it is incumbent upon us to continue prophesying–so that Sodom doesn’t change us, so that the negative influences don’t impact on us, and so that we will be able to live good and noble lives.

May you be blessed.