Ideology of Solitarity – Vayeira


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When we think today of the epitome of evil, it conjures up barbaric images of ISIS (yemach shmam) chopping peoples’ heads off or ploughing with a truck into a crowd of innocent men, women and children.

There are degrees of evil and HKB”H punishes each mida keneged mida, according to their severity. We recently read about the generation of Enosh and the tsunami that wiped them out, the generation of Noach and the מבול, the דור הפלגה. Each of these received their appropriate punishment and although they did things that we consider “evil”, the Torah does not mention that word in connection with them.

The first time the Torah categorically calls something “evil”, and not only evil but VERY evil, רָעִים וְחַטָּאִים לַה' מְאֹד - is in connection with Sdom. In this shiur we will be analyzing the sin of Sdom, to get to the root of the matter and understand what makes them the epitome of evil.

The first time Sdom is mentioned in the Torah is just after listing the Canaanite descendants of Cham, son of Noach. The passuk lists the borders of Canaan and one of the borders includes Sdom in the south. Following that, the next time we hear of Sdom is in last week’s parsha Lech Lecha, in connection with Lot.

Lot’s shepherds were caught grazing their flocks in fields that did not belong to them. Avraham decides that he and Lot can no longer live together and they part ways. Lot is given first choice where he would like to live and he chooses Sdom –

וַיִּשָּׂא לוֹט אֶת עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת כָּל כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן כִּי כֻלָּהּ מַשְׁקֶה לִפְנֵי שַׁחֵת ה' אֶת סְדֹם וְאֶת עֲמֹרָה כְּגַן ה' כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בֹּאֲכָה צֹעַר (בראשית יג, י)

Today we speak of the Jordan Valley. Back then it was not a valley, but a plain and not just any plain, but such a fertile plain that it is compared to a combination of Gan Eden (where the numerous rivers irrigate the trees) and Egypt (where the Nile overflows its banks and irrigates the seeds) (Malbim, ibid.)

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 109a), quoting psukkim from Iyov (28,5-8), tells us that in this area there were precious gems and gold in such abundance that each time someone pulled a carrot or cucumber out of the ground, embedded in the roots were gold nuggets and sapphires. The place was a paradise!

All the people who lived there were billionaires. In fact that was the entrance requirement for living in Sdom.  Anyone who was not in that class was not allowed to live there. Their reasoning was – it is better for all the very wealthy people to live concentrated in one place, rather in a mixed neighborhood, including less wealthy people who would constantly be looking at you with big eyes. This way, theoretically, none of the residents would be envious of their neighbors (I say theoretically, because, as we will soon see, the reality was far from that).  

Since the residents of Sdom were so rich, they did not need an influx of revenue, from tourism for example, in fact they despised tourists, or any other guests for that matter! Their worst nightmare was beggars coming to beg for money. They simply wanted to live their lives of luxury in peace and quiet in their own estates, behind their high walls, without interference from any outsiders and even from their neighbors. You do your thing and I will do mine. שלי שלי ושלך שלך, זו מדה בינונית ויש אומרים, זו מדת סדום (אבות ה, י).

Until now the premise seems reasonable and even understandable and legitimate. However the residents of Sdom were not simply misanthropic, they were pathologically misanthropic. They did not satisfy themselves with big signs at the entrance to Sdom saying “NOT Welcome to Sdom” or “Tresspassers will be prosecuted”, they felt it necessary to legislate and enforce laws against entry of outsiders, laws that defy basic human decency and logic.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 109a) and the Midrashim list some of these laws and customs and paint a picture that gives us an idea of what life was like in Sdom.

The Sdomites did not want beggars to be drawn to Sdom and its wealth so they formulated a law that said “Anyone found feeding a guest will be sentenced to death”. Their reasoning was “logical”. They said they did not have a problem with any specific beggar, but if you give to one beggar, the word would get around and soon Sdom will have a flood of “schnorrerim”!

If a poor person happened to stumble by chance into Sdom, all they found were doors and windows slammed shut in their face - in the best case. In the worst case they were robbed and raped (this is the origin of the word "sodomized"). If the people of Sdom caught a visitor sleeping on the park bench they would make “adjustments” to this unfortunate guest. If he was shorter than the bench they would stretch him (with a rack) and if he was too tall they would “shorten” him by lopping off one or more limbs. It was not spontaneous or optional, that was the law!

Another technique they adopted was that although nobody was allowed to give a beggar food, they were allowed by law to give him money. They would give him a dinar coin on which they engraved their name. The beggar thought he might be able to use the money to buy food, but when he entered a store, if the shopkeeper saw a name on the dinar, he refused to sell the man food. The poor beggar soon starved to death, upon which, all those who had given him money would retrieve it from the dead man’s pocket and then steal his clothing.

They thought that the beggars would quickly figure things out for themselves and not stick around or starve. To their dismay they found beggars lingering for days on end until they discovered how. The beggars were catching the pigeons in the trees in the park and eating them to survive. So the Sdomites cut down all the trees in the park. No trees, no birds.

Not only were birds not welcome in the park, if a bird happened to land on a fruit tree in the orchard of one of the Sdomites, it would also meet a grim end. Sdom became a no-fly zone. Not only did the Sdomites not want to share their wealth with people, they did not want to share it with any living creature.

A few months after the park trees were removed, they discovered one beggar still managing to survive. So they spied on him to see how this was possible. This was the kind of “Big Brother” society it was – everyone was spying on and informing on everyone else. They discovered that Lot’s daughter Plotit was feeding the beggar. She would go down to the river with her empty jar to collect water and in the empty jar she hid a sandwich which she gave to him to eat.

The court in Sdom sentenced her to death. According to one opinion they burned her at the stake. According to another opinion they stripped her, lathered her with honey and tied her to a stake on the roof of her home. Millions of bees descended on her and stung her to death. The Sdomite court wanted to teach everyone a lesson – one bee (beggar) is harmless, but if you feed one, you get a “swarm” and they are deadly.  Plotit’s anguished cries were the clincher that sealed Sdom’s fate אֵרֲדָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה וְאִם לֹא אֵדָעָה (בראשית יח, כא).

From the above it may mistakenly appear that the Sdomites were a close-knit community, of the same mind, but this was not the case. They also despised each other and, despite their vast wealth, repeatedly tried to steal from each other.  If they saw someone carrying money they would lead him alongside a rickety wall and then topple the wall down on him, kill him and steal his money. Another trick was to ask their neighbor to safeguard a precious item for them. In the bag they would also place שמן אפרסמון, which had a strong and distinct aroma. The neighbor would secure this package in the secret safe in his home and in the middle of the night, the owner of the item would break into his house and follow the scent and thereby discover the secret safe and steal whatever was in it.

If someone came to the court complaining that a neighbor had struck his pregnant wife causing her to miscarry, the judges would rule that the wife must move in with the man who struck her, who would sleep with her and make her pregnant to “replace” the infant that had died. If a person complained to the court that someone had struck them and drawn blood, the court would order the injured party to pay the man who struck him for saving him the costs of bloodletting (which was considered a beneficial medical procedure). If someone cut the ear off his neighbor’s donkey, the court would rule that the donkey remain with the person who cut it off, until it grew back.

There was a special vacation spot by the river, surrounded by palm trees where the residents of Sdom periodically used to go and dance, one man with another’s wife which eventually led to everyone sleeping with everyone else, much like the “hippie” communes of the 1960’s.

Very soon Sdom acquired a reputation and it was not a good one. If ever a Sdomite had to travel out of Sdom, he was shunned and kicked out of everywhere he went. The elders of Sdom decided to do something to “improve their image”. They appointed Lot to be the head of their supreme court. They did not examine his resume or give him a trial period, he was appointed directly to that position for one and only one reason. Lot’s physical appearance resembled Avraham’s. The Sdomites wanted a poster boy who looked like one of the most admired figures of the generation.

Chazal say that the people of Sdom sinned with all three cardinal sins, גילוי עריות, שפיחות דמים ועבודה זרה, just like the generation of the מבול and just like the generation of Noach, it was a society of chaos, anarchy and unspeakable barbarity. What made Sdom evil, however, was that they took this barbarity to a more intricate, sinister level.

The residents of Sdom were not ignorant savages who performed acts of savagery out of instinct or lack of self-control, like an animal. The Gemara (Nedarim 65a) brings the story of king Tzidkiyahu, who was a close confidant of king Nebuchadnezzar and a frequent visitor in his palace. One day Tzidkiyahu unexpectedly entered Nebuchadnezzar’s chamber to find him eating a live rabbit, pulling limb after limb from the live animal. Seeing Tzidkiyahu was visibly appalled by this barbaric behavior, Nebuchadnezzar made him swear an oath of secrecy. Nebuchadnezzar was a barbarian, he was like an animal, but at least he was ashamed of his barbarity and did not want it made public.

Sdomites were barbarians, no doubt about it, but they were also intellectuals. The Gemara (Bava Batra 25b) says הרוצה שיחכים ידרים – if you want to become smart you should go south. Sdom was on the southern border of Canaan, they were not only the richest people in Canaan, they were also the most educated and intelligent. Their behavior and lifestyle was not spontaneous and uncalculated. It was seriously thought out and purposely crafted and executed. They were not ashamed of their behavior, quite the opposite - they totally perverted reality and institutionalized and legalized it as part of their culture and society. They were idealistic and extremely proud of their way of life.

To them it was an ideology, the ideology of “solitarity”. In this ideology there is no “us”, “we”, but only “I”, “me”. Their ideology was to idolize the solitary individual and to criminalize the collective.  Rabbeinu Bachyei says that the people of Sdom were remnants of the דור הפלגה who had chosen to rebel against HKB”H. This ideology of “solitarity” was their rebellion.

When HKB”H created the world there was only one “Solitarity”, one “One” and that was HKB”H Himself. All the other creations were in the plural, more than one - except for Adam Harishon. Adam Harishon was the only human in existence (although Chazal say he was created as a combination of two sub-organisms, male and female - in one organism). The angels, when they saw Adam for the first time thought he was G-d. Adam corrected them and said, let’s together, sing praises - to the real G-d. The song they sang was ה' מָלָךְ גֵּאוּת לָבֵשׁ (תהילים צ"ג).

HKB”H decided that having only one solitary man was not a good thing לֹא טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ אֶעֱשֶׂה לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (בראשית ב, יח). HKB”H split the two parts of Adam Harishon into two distinct, separate organisms, one male, one female – Adam and Chava.

Chazal say עולם חסד ייבנה. The premise and purpose of creating the world was חסד, in order that one human would help another, אם זכה - עוזרו , אם לא זכה – כנגדו. This is to duplicate HKB”H’s behavior towards us – everything in this world is a חסד HKB”H does for us.

Adam and Chava, when they sinned with the עץ הדעת, failed to realize that ideal. Instead of helping one another, Adam blamed Chava, Chava blamed the נחש – it was everyone for him/herself.

Ten generations later, Noach also failed to realize that ideal. Instead of davening for his generation, Noach preferred to take care of himself, which is why the flood is referred to in his name כִּי מֵי נֹחַ זֹאת לִי (ישעיהו נד ט).

The first time in history the “collective” was actually realized, was דור הפלגה, where people actually banded and worked together. However their purpose of uniting was not to help each other (while building the מגדל they were more saddened when a brick fell and broke than when a human fell to his death), but to rebel against HKB”H. Even though HKB”H punished them for their rebellion, the fact that they had a sense of “us” saved them from being wiped out, like the דור המבול.  

Finally, twenty generations after Adam Harishon, the ideal was realized by Avraham Avinu.

Avraham epitomized everything HKB”H intended with the creation of the world. This is why HKB”H sent three angels to visit him after his brit milah, the same angels who asked HKB”H why He created the world if all man did was sin. HKB”H said to them “This is why I created the world!” אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ בְּהִבָּרְאָם- אל תקרא בהבראם, אלא באברהם.

In fact parshat Vayeira is a parsha of contrasts - Avraham and Lot, Avraham and Sdom.

Avraham perfected חסד. He lived and breathed it and thus managed to turn the tide and reintroduce the world to its Creator. That is the only way to effectively be mekarev people - through חסד. It’s all very nice to preach hifalutin concepts using logic and idealism, but what turns people around is חסד – when they see what a mensch you are, they want to be like you.

Sdom were remnants from the דור הפלגה, according to Rabbeinu Bachyei, but, although they continued that generation’s rebellion against HKB”H, they failed to learn from the one saving grace that generation had – unity. Instead they developed an ideology that idolized the individual – themselves. They made themselves into a god and worshipped themselves.  וְאַנְשֵׁי סְדֹם רָעִים וְחַטָּאִים לה' מְאֹד. Sdom was “very” evil, מאד. What does that mean? The letters מאד are the letters אדם. Sdom failed to understand the reason HKB”H created mankind – to do חסד with one another, the same way HKB”H does חסד with mankind.

This was the root of it all. The people of Sdom turned themselves into a god and worshipped themselves. Solitarity. If you are a god, then everything exists to serve you. You are subservient to no-one. You can do whatever you like and are answerable to no-one. With this starting premise, such a society quickly deteriorated into what Chazal described above - a society of גילוי עריות, שפיכות דמים ועבודה זרה. Their society was barbaric, but it was not a spontaneous, instinctive, animalistic barbarity – it was a sinister, calculated barbarity that took reality and perverted it, turned reality on its head, so that up was down and down was up, right was wrong and wrong was right – it was the law!

דור המבול at least had a טענה – that nobody rebuked them and nobody prayed for their generation. Yes, HKB”H gave them repeated warnings and they saw Noach building the ark and knew why, but Noach didn’t travel to the far reaches of the earth rebuking and trying to be mekarev. Noach didn’t pray for his generation.

Sdom didn’t have such a טענה. In their generation they had Avraham Avinu, whose ideology was “SoliDarity”, not “SoliTarity”. Avraham loved people, he helped them, he tried to mekarav them, he traversed the length and breadth of the land helping people. Avraham even davened for Sdom! 50 tzaddikim, 40, 30 …..knowing how evil they were.

Instead of learning from Avraham, Sdom scorned Avraham - they were his diametric opposite. Just to get an idea how sinister and perverted Sdom were, they appointed Lot to be their supreme judge – specifically because he looked like Avraham. Why would they “posterize” someone they scorned? Because with them everything was upside down! They took reality and perverted it “Look  - the nephew of Avraham is our poster boy”, anyone looking at Lot would see Avraham, as if Avraham was the "spokesman" for Sdom! Perverted and upside down.

This is why Sdom’s punishment was being turned upside down, mida keneged mida. וַיַּהֲפֹךְ אֶת הֶעָרִים הָאֵל וְאֵת כָּל הַכִּכָּר וְאֵת כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי הֶעָרִים וְצֶמַח הָאֲדָמָה (בראשית יט, כה). Chazal say that all the area of Sdom rested on one solid rock and that HKB”H flipped it over. From once being a paradise, HKB”H eradicated Sdom and left it as a scar on the land as an everlasting testament to anyone contemplating rebelling against HKB”H. Today when they make movies with terrain that resemble the surface of the moon, they shoot it in the area of what was once Sdom. Chazal say that if you catch a raindrop that falls in that area that was once Sdom and try use it to water a plant, the plant will not grow, it will wither and die.

HKB”H didn’t suddenly one day rain down fire and brimstone (sulphur), He gave Sdom numerous warnings which they repeatedly ignored and thus sealed their own fate.

The only conundrum in this story is Lot. Sdom were Sdom and Avraham was Avraham, but where exactly were Lot’s affiliations? When Lot and Avraham parted Chazal say that not only did Lot leave Avraham, he also left Avraham’s G-d. The fact that he decided to go live amongst people like that and even be their supreme judge and enforce their perverted laws, speaks volumes for Lot’s character, or lack thereof.

However, there is a “fly in the ointment” – Lot’s daughter Plotit was the one to defy Sdom’s  laws and feed the beggar. Lot himself defied his “own” laws when he invited the angels into his home. And the clincher – Lot and his daughters were the only ones who survived.

The answer to this is twofold. The only reason Lot went with Avraham in the first place was because he thought he would inherit Avraham’s fortune, not because he loved Avraham or believed in his ideology. When he saw that this was not going to happen, and anyway he was a billionaire in his own right, he found no reason to stick around. However, the very fact that he had lived with Avraham for such a long time had an effect on him, something rubbed off, a small shadow of Avraham’s chessed that manifested in Sdom with his daughter and the angels.

Secondly, although Lot became like the “anti-חסד” people of Sdom, Lot once did Avraham a great חסד. When Avraham went down to Egypt and “lied” that Sarah was his sister and not his wife, Lot was with them. All the time Lot was nodding his head, “Yes, his sister!” He could easily have spilled the beans. For this good turn he did Avraham, HKB”H repaid him a billionfold. He made him a billionaire in his own right, but much more than that, he made Lot the great-great …. great grandfather of David Hamelech and the Mashiach (Rut was descended from Moav, who was the son of Lot from the union with his daughter).

A modern equivalent of Sdom was Nazi Germany. The Nazis legislated laws to murder mentally handicapped individuals on the premise that not only was it good for society, but also for the handicapped person, to put them out of their “misery”. It was barbarity that had been coldly rationalized, legalized and perverted to such a degree that it became even admirable, an ideal.  The “Big Brother” society that prevailed in the Nazi era also resembles Sdom. Soviet Russia and the KGB also have similarities to Sdom.

A contemporary version of Sdom is the Palestinian Arab propaganda that takes history and reality and turns it on its head, so that wrong becomes right and right becomes wrong.

We have many modern day parallels to Sdom and its many faces. The lesson the Torah wants to teach us is not only how Sdom ended up, but its inception which eventually led to that - so that we do not repeat their errors.

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