Vayera: Ethics of S’dom

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

And his wife looked back, and she turned into a pillar of salt. (Bereshit/ Genesis 19:26)

Good morning!

This week we continue the story of Avraham and his family- Yitzhak is born and Yishmael is banished, but in the middle of all that Avraham’s nephew Lot gets into trouble in the wicked city of S’dom. What is the cause of his trouble? He welcomes guests- in this case, they happen to be the angels who visited his uncle Avraham at the beginning of the portion- and the rabbis understand this to be contrary to S’dom’s pervasive ethics of selfishness and contempt for the poor and needy. Thus, a mob shows up at his door, demanding that he turn the men over, but instead the visitors help him escape from the doomed city. Warning Lot and his family not to look back, the angels urge him to flee quickly; his wife does look back, and is turned into the famous pillar of salt, as in the verse above.

It’s important to remember that the real crime of the residents of S’dom was not sexual abuse as such. Although the mob comes to Lot’s door demanding the men so that “we might know them,” based on the ancient rabbi’s understanding of S’dom,  the threat of sexual abuse was the means by which the mob enforced the city’s ethic of contempt for the poor and weak. (Hat tip to Gershom Gorenberg for pointing this out in his columns on S’dom and politics.) Not only that, but the ethic of withholding assistance to the weak was one that the city was proud of, and its new residents adopted, as illustrated byRashi’s comment on why Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt:

“She sinned with salt, and she was punished with salt. He said to her, ‘Give a little salt to these guests.’ She replied,’Also this evil custom you wish to introduce into this place?’ ” 

Note that, in this interpretation, Lot’s wife didn’t regard it as merely inconvenient to give salt to the guests, but as evil or bad [Hebrew minhag ha’ra ]. In our world, there are indeed people who believe it is wrong to help the poor and weak, but nothing could be further from Judaism or any other mainstream spiritual/religious teaching or philosophy. The sin of S’dom was not only that they disdained the poor, but that they enforced a radical selfishness as the prevailing cultural ethic, and drew other people into their orbit of self-absorption. Our Torah portion this week begins with Avraham running after wayfarers to invite them into his tent; the contrast with S’dom could not be clearer, nor the ethical implications for those who consider themselves the children of Avraham. The moral and spiritual descendants of Avraham actively seek out opportunities to help the lost, lonely, weak, needy and poor; we are charged to be antidote to the ethics of S’dom in a world which needs us more than ever.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S. It goes without saying that at a time when so many have been devastated by Hurricane Sandy, it’s a great time to give to organizations on the ground helping and healing. UJA Federation of NY has a special fund for this purpose, as do many other worthy organizations. Give generously and wisely.

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