Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
The destruction of the cities of Sodom and GomorrahThis week's parashah is Va'yera. Within its verses we find some of the most familiar, and troubling, stories in the Torah. For Va'yera contains within it the stories of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac on Mt. Moriah), the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham and Sarah, and the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is on this last narrative that I would like to focus my d'var torah for this week.
In our contemporary lexicon the phrase "Sodom and Gomorrah" has become synonymous with extreme depravity and immorality, with a particularly sexual connotation. Within the narrative in Bereshit it would seem that sexual immorality is only part of the evil of Sodom. Contrary to popular usage it is also clear from the reading of the narrative that it is not homosexuality that is the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah (though Jerry Fallwell and others might disagree). The people of Sodom did demand that Lot (Abraham and Sarah's nephew) hand over the strangers in their house (actually messengers of God sent to tell Lot of the impending doom) so that "we may know them," which is clearly a sexual reference in terms of biblical Hebrew. However, what makes them sinful according to our Sages is not sexual desire or lust, but rather their desire to abuse and humiliate other human beings because they are strangers in their midst. The two messengers could just has easily have been women and the people's response would have been the same. The Sages teach us that only the wealthy were welcome as guest in Sodom. The poor were to be expelled or killed.
We read in Midrash Pirkei Eliezer (a collection of rabbinic homilies collected in the 3rd and 4th centuries in the land of Israel) that any resident of these cities who attempted to give food or aid to a poor person was subject to death. As a matter of fact, this same midrash tells us that Lot's daughter was convicted of giving bread to a poor person each time she went to the well for water and, as the people began her execution, she cried out to God. It was this cry that reached God and prompted God to send the messengers (angels) to Sodom and Gomorrah to see if their sin was as great as her cry would imply.