Money isn’t the root of all evil, but it is a trellis for greed.
– Caanan Grall, “Max Overacts” cartoon <1>
THE CENTRAL SIN OF SODOM
Here’s a trick question: Why did God destroy Sodom? Yes, the Sodomites were “evil, sinning against God very much” (Bereisheet 13:13), and “their sin was very serious” (Ibid. 18:20). But what was their main sin?
The reason it’s a trick question is that the answer doesn’t appear explicitly in the Chumash. But it does appear in Yechezkel! Here it is:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before Me. Therefore I did away with them, as you have seen.<2>
In other words, the main sin of Sodom was arrogance, which led the Sodomites to sin by ignoring the poor (and also to do detestable things, which are not specified). Why were they so arrogant? The Gemara explains:
The people of Sodom were arrogant only because of their wealth. . . . They said, “Since we are an affluent society, immigrants will only cut into our share of the pie; come let us ban immigration!”<3>
Yes, trying to close the doors to immigrants is not a new phenomenon. (The “haves” often want to keep out the “have nots.”) Why does the Gemara call Sodom an affluent society? Well, what was once Sodom is now called the Dead Sea, but at the time it was incredibly well-located. As one contemporary article points out, that was exactly why Lot moved to Sodom:
The city sat, “well-watered,” beside the Jordan River and looked to him “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt” (Genesis 13:10). The implicit syllogism is simple: guaranteed water means guaranteed food and comfort, two things that can make a Sodom, or an Egypt, seem like a garden of Eden.<4>
When some people become wealthy, they generously share their money with the needy. In contrast, when the people of Sodom became wealthy, they selfishly kept their money for themselves. Rabbanit Chana Henkin sums up the answer to our trick question:
It is not adultery, paganism, murder, battery, or theft which caused the destruction of Sodom. It was the arrogance of the wealthy, who took it for granted that what was theirs was theirs alone, and that economic bounty need not be shared with the disadvantaged.<5>
To sum up so far, the main sin of Sodom was selfishness – a lethal combination of arrogance and wealth.
WHAT’S MINE IS MINE
In her formulation of “what was theirs was theirs alone,” Rabbanit Henkin is alluding to a puzzling mishnah in Pirkei Avot:
If someone says, “What is mine is mine (sheli sheli) and what is yours is yours (shelkha shelakh),” this is an average character trait (middah beinonit). But some say this is the character trait of Sodom (middat Sedom).<6>
All the commentators wonder at this debate. Rabbi Yitzchak Blau (who used to teach at Midreshet HaRova) formulates the question this way: “While a person who rejects benevolence certainly should not apply for sainthood, why does one opinion equate this approach with the traits of Sodom?”<7>
Of the multiple answers given by the commentaries on Pirkei Avot, I’d like to focus on one – the answer of the Meiri (Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri, 1249-1315).
The Meiri points out that the phrase “middat Sedom” appears in a halakhic context as well. In five places, the Gemara refers to a principle called “Kofin al middat Sedom,” which means “We (the rabbinic court) do not allow someone to act in the manner of Sodom”).<8> According to the Meiri and others, the principle is referring to a case of “Zeh neheneh ve-zeh lo chaser,” which means “This one benefits and this one does not suffer any loss.”<9> If someone else wants to benefit from my property in such a way that I lose nothing, I have no right to stop him from doing so.<10>
In light of this, the Meiri suggests that the two statements in Pirkei Avot do not contradict each other. Rather, they are addressing different cases. The second statement uses the term “middat Sedom” because it is referring to a case of “Zeh neheneh ve-zeh lo chaser.” As we just explained, saying “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is insisting that nobody can use my property under any circumstances, even when I won’t lose out in any way. This is indeed emulating the selfish Sodomites. In contrast, the first statement uses the term “middah beinonit” because it is referring to a case of “Zeh neheneh ve-zeh chaser,” which means “This one benefits and this one suffers a loss.” In that case, saying “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is insisting that nobody can use my property if it means that I’m going to lose out. The Meiri paraphrases it as “I do not want to cause a loss to others or to be caused a loss by others.” This is an average character trait – not especially nice, but about what you can expect from most people.<11>
Rabbanit Henkin reads the mishnah this way as well:
When one’s fellow man can support himself, it is normal to say “what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” It may not reflect Avraham’s generosity, but it is far from Sodom’s parsimony. But when one’s fellow man lacks that with which to sustain himself, holding back one’s wealth becomes middat Sdom.<12>
In other words, what made the sin of Sodom so bad wasn’t that they were selfish. It was that they were selfish when in fact they could have afforded to be generous. Today, since most of us are relatively wealthy and in fact can afford to give more tzedakah than we do, this description of Sodom’s sin should concern us.<13>
THE SALT OF SODOM
How do we make sure we’re not slipping into Sodomite habits of thought? One suggestion appears in Rabbi Nissan Mindel’s classic book on tefillah called My Prayer. It’s based on one of the reasons given in the Gemara for doing Mayim Acharonim, the hand-washing before Birkat HaMazon: “Because there’s Melach Sedomit (Sodomite salt), which can be harmful for the eyes.”<14> One opinion cited in the Shulchan Arukh allows us to skip Mayim Acharonim today, since our salt isn’t Sodomite salt.<15> Nevertheless, Rabbi Mindel explains the reason on a symbolic level:
It is well-known that only a person who has suffered pain can truly understand another person in pain. Only a person who has known starvation can truly understand another starving person. There is a saying, “The sated man does not understand the hungry man.” Now, the rich man as he sits down to his meal, that is to say, when he is hungry, would feel more kindly toward a poor man, should one knock at his door and ask for a meal. Being hungry himself at that moment, the rich man would better understand how the hungry pauper feels. But after the rich man has had his meal, he might not feel so sympathetic towards the poor man. The rich man might even be annoyed at having his rest disturbed. He might blame the poor man for bothering him, instead of going out to earn his own living in order to avoid being a burden on others. A full stomach often goes with a dull head and an insensitive heart. Thus, there is the danger of a special kind of “Sodomite salt” – a Sodomite thought – coming with the meal. We know what the Sodomite attitude was towards strangers and beggars. Even Lot’s wife was infected with this kind of Melach Sedomit, and it was no mere coincidence that she turned into a pillar of salt. Therefore, when our Sages said that Melach Sedomit is “harmful for the eyes,” they might well have meant also that with a meal there is yet another danger, perhaps even more serious, namely, the danger of entertaining a Sodomite thought which might sneak in on a full stomach; the danger of becoming blind to the needs and sufferings of the poor.
In this connection, it is well to remember the interpretation which our Sages give to the verse (Vayikra 20:7), “And you shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy; for I, your G-d, am holy.” Why the repetition? they ask. Surely, “You shall sanctify yourselves means “You shall be holy.” And they answer: “You shall sanctify yourselves” by washing your hands before the meal, and “you shall be holy” by washing your hands after the meal – with Mayim Acharonim (Berachot 53b).
It is not enough to sit down at the table with pure hands and pure thoughts; we must see to it that we remain pure and holy also after the meal, and not permit “Sodomite Salt” to cling to us and to contaminate our thoughts and insights, as the Sodomites permitted themselves to turn into beasts by their gluttony and wealth.<16>
Whether we practice Mayim Acharonim or not, this is an idea worth remembering. That way, we will make sure not to repeat the sin of Sodom.
1. Caanan Grall, “Max Overacts” cartoon #216 (February 6, 2012). http://occasionalcomics.com/1106/latest-comic-260/ The speaker is Max.
2. Yechezkel 16:49-50. The translation is from the New International Version.
3. Sanhedrin 109a. The translation is from Rabbanit Chana Henkin, “Parshat Vayera,” Nishmat website, 1999. https://web.archive.org/web/19990209062449/http://www.nishmat.org.il/archive/vayera.htm
4. Professors Jeremy England and Daniel Kaganovich, “Surrendering Liberty in Sodom,” Mosaic Magazine, October 2013. http://mosaicmagazine.com/supplemental/2013/10/surrendering-liberty-in-sodom/
5. See note 3 above.
6. Pirkei Avot 5:10 (or 5:13 in the siddur’s version of Pirkei Avot).
7. Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, “Sodom Society and Moral Society,” Yeshivat Hamivtar – Orot Lev website, December 10-17, 2000. https://web.archive.org/web/20010124070100/http://www.yhol.org.il/features/sodom.htm
8. Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein (as translated by David Strauss), “Kofin Al Middat Sedom: Compulsory Altruism?”, Alei Etzion #16 (Iyar 5769), s.v. “As descriptions.” http://etzion.org.il/en/alei-etzion-16-kofin-al-middat-sedom-compulsory-altruism
9. Bava Kama 20b, as presented in Ibid., s.v. “Leading Rishonim.”
10. For an extensive article in Hebrew on the subject, see Encyclopedia Talmudit, Vol. 27, s.v. “Kofim Al Middat Sedom.” There are 528 footnotes.
11. Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri, Beit HaBechirah, Masekhet Avot, Chapter 5, s.v. “arba middot ba-adam.” Rabbi Blau summarizes the Meiri as follows: “R. Menahem Meiri explains that not sharing is only middat sodom when the person who could have shared stands to lose nothing by sharing. If a person chooses to let excess food rot rather than invite others to partake, this reveals selfishness beyond the normal decision not to share. Usage of the term ‘middat sodom’ in the gemara coheres with this interpretation.” (The Meiri is also cited in Rav Lichtenstein’s article, s.v. “It would seem to follow.”)
12. See note 3 above. Compare Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer’s approach to this mishnah, as cited in Rabbi Moshe Levy, MiShel HaAvot (Bnei Brak, 5754), Vol. 3, pp. 103-104.
13. See the thought-provoking article by Professor Peter Singer, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” The New York Times Magazine, September 5, 1999, pp. 60-63. http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/19990905.htm
14. Chullin 105b. A literal translation would be “it blinds the eyes.” My wife, Dr. Yocheved Engelberg Cohen, suggests that this can be understood in light of the rabbinic phrase for someone stingy or begrudging of other people’s good fortune: “ayin ra’ah” (literally “a bad eye”). See, for example, Pirkei Avot 5:19.
15. Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 181:10.
16. Rabbi Nissan Mindel, My Prayer, Vol. 1 (Brooklyn: Kehot Publication Society, 1972), p. 291f. http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pagefeed/hebrewbooks_org_15782_296.pdf