>What picture comes to mind when we hear the names Sodom and Gomorah?
These cities have become symbols of wickedness, depravity and general abusive behaviour. And their names are forever associated with any place which is deemed to have descended into evil. We can all think of examples of modern day cities which have been labelled as Sodom or Gomorah. The most common association in our contemporary society is with Las Vegas, as can be seen in the portrayal of Sodom in the film ‘Year One’ and can be read about in many articles about our modern day ‘sin-city’.
From almost the first reference in Torah, we know that Sodom is destined for destruction. ‘And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where before Adonai destroyed Sodom and Gomorah’ (Genesis 13:10). To leave no doubt as to why the cities were destroyed the text specifies ‘the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinners before Adonai’ (Genesis 13:13). However, it offers no description of the wickedness or sin perpetuated by the people. And no additional information is given when God informs Abraham of the decision to destroy the cities: ‘because the cry of Sodom and Gomorah is great, and because their sin is very grievous’ (Genesis 18:20).
In this week’s Torah portion we gain some limited insight into the type of cities which they were, through the visit of the 2 angels. When Lot greets them he appears concerned for their safety and urges them to stay in his home (Genesis 19:3). And almost immediately the house is surrounded by the men of the city who inquire about the visitors and demand ‘bring them out unto us, so that we may know them’ (Genesis 19:5). The Hebrew is ambiguous and the request to ‘know them’ may, in the Bible, be a reference to sexual relations. The mob therefore offers another insight into the undesirable nature of the city.
Despite these Biblical references, the Rabbis decided that the sin of Sodom was something different. In Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers) there are a series of verses which divide society into groups and categories. One of them states:
‘There are four types of people: One who says, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” – this is the common type, though some say that this is the type of Sodom. One who says, “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine” – they are an ignorant person. One who says, “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours” – this is a saintly person. And one who says, “What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine” – they are a wicked person’ (Pirkei Avot 5:13).
We might have expected that the Rabbis would have equated the behaviour of the ‘wicked person’ with ‘the type of Sodom’, but instead they suggest that the ‘common type’, saying “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours”, is associated with Sodom. This is a striking statement about what a sinful city is like; it is not a den of depravity and vice, it is a place where people are only concerned with their own possessions and well-being.
Sodom was punished for being the ‘common type’. Rather than looking for extreme examples as our modern day Sodom and Gomorah; perhaps we should look at our own cities, and the places where we live. Wherever people are only concerned about their own possessions and well-being – it could be Sodom; where people ignore the community and focus only on themselves – it could be Gomorah. With this understanding we can challenge the sin of Sodom and Gomorah, not just in extreme examples, but in ourselves and our own cities; and perhaps this is the lesson which the Rabbis wanted to teach.