Why Sodom was chosen for Divine Destruction. Three biblical sources.
In R. Binyamin Lau’s second essay for Parashat VaYeira, “HaTashtit HaMussarit LeMidina Yehudit” (Etnachta: Kriyot BeParashat HaShavua, Vol. 2, Yediot Acharonot, Tel Aviv, 2009, pp. 50-3), he presumes that the biblical text can reveal the sins, i.e., ethical, economic and sexual, that led to the Divine destruction of Sodom. R. Lau identifies three different occasions when Sodom is displayed as the terrible place that it had become, and therefore the dynamics of these three situations constitute a general cautionary tale of what society must strive to avoid in order not to become like Sodom.
#1 Lot’s choice when he is forced to live apart from his uncle Avraham.
The regular disputes between Avraham’s and Lot’s shepherds (Beraishit 13:7) led to the Patriarch’s decision that Lot had to relocate. When considering his choices for new surroundings, Lot is attracted to Sodom’s geographical characteristics:
And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well-watered everywhere, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as thou goest unto Tzoar.
R. Lau surmises that the equation between the Garden of Eden and Egypt was due to the readiness with which the farmlands could be watered. The Nile regularly overflowed its banks, matching the lushness of Eden which is a matter of record. Lot had spent time in Egypt with Avraham’s family when it fled Canaan due to a famine, and he wished to live in surroundings where he could rely on the place’s protection from famine and wandering in search of pasture land.
(The Tora contrasts in this regard the land of Israel with that of Egypt:
10 For the land, whither thou goest in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from whence ye came out, where thou didst sow thy seed, and didst water it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs; 11 But the land, whither ye go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water as the rain of heaven cometh down;
The assumption of the Tora is that man will be more dependent upon God when irrigation can take place only as the result of rain, which is far more irregular than the waters of the Nile regularly being available to farmers.)
The Tora’s third-person aside, commenting that the inhabitants of Sodom were horrible human beings:
Now the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners against the LORD exceedingly.
apparently impressed Lot less than the attractions of the land itself. Either Lot hadn’t bothered to consider the moral quality of the society, or he simply didn’t care:
The Talmud goes so far as to say that these two characteristics, i.e., the fertility of the land and the evil of its inhabitants, were related to one another as cause and effect:
The Sages taught: The people of Sodom became haughty and sinned due only to the excessive goodness that the Holy One, Blessed be He, Bestowed upon them. And what is written concerning them, indicating that goodness? (Iyov 28:5–8) “As for the earth, out of it comes bread, and underneath it is turned up as it were by fire. Its stones are the place of sapphires, and it has dust of gold. That path no bird of prey knows, neither has the falcon’s eye seen it. The proud beasts have not trodden it, nor has the lion passed thereby.” The reference is to the city of Sodom, which was later overturned, as it is stated thereafter: (Ibid. 9) “He Puts forth His Hand upon the flinty rock; He Overturns the mountains by the roots.” The people of Sodom said: Since we live in a land from which bread comes and has the dust of gold, we have everything that we need. Why do we need travelers, as they come only to divest us of our property? Come, let us cause the proper treatment of travelers to be forgotten from our land, as it is stated: (Ibid. 4) “He breaks open a watercourse in a place far from inhabitants, forgotten by pedestrians, they are dried up, they have moved away from men…
#2 The angels’ evening visit to Sodom.
The angels’ attempt to quickly save Lot and destroy the city, was thwarted by all of Sodom’s inhabitants who were determined to do harm to Lot’s guests, and by doing so, sealed the cities’ fate:
4 But before they (the angels) lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both young and old, all the people from every quarter. 5 And they called unto Lot, and said unto him: Where are the men that came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may “know” them.
R. Lau now quotes R. Yitzchak Arama’s Akeidat Yitzchak Tora commentary, in which he wonders:
Hadn’t the Jews sinned any number of times much worse than this, e.g,, thievery, violence, and all sorts of skullduggery , which the prophets bemoaned as they were teaching and rebuking them day after day, yet the Jews were not punished this severely (the cities destroyed and all of the inhabitants killed). This is amazing!
R. Arama explains that the fundamental difference is a sin of an individual vs. an entire society which had become corrupt. R. Lau cites the prophet Yechezkel’s judgment regarding Sodom’s evil and the Midrash’s comment on this verse:
Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom (a generalization that applied to everyone who lived there): pride, fulness of bread, and careless ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.
Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, #25
They were sated with all the produce of the earth, but they did not strengthen with the loaf of bread either the hand of the needy or of the poor, as it is said, “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom; pride, fulness of bread, and careless ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy”
Rabbi Yehuda said: They made a proclamation (a basic principle of the entire society) in Sodom (saying): Everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor or the needy with a loaf of bread, shall be burnt by fire…
#3 The screams of a young girl.
R. Lau continues that the Midrash cited in #2 does not stop with the verse in Yechezkel, but rather interprets a verse in the Parashat HaShavua describing the basis for the Divine Decision to Send angels on a “fact-finding” mission to Sodom, and contends that there is a more heart-breaking situation that demanded Divine Intervention.
20 And the LORD Said: Verily, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous. 21 I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto Me; and if not, I will know.
Although R. Lau points out that the simple, literal meaning of the verse in question is referring to the general cry emanating from the various victims of the persecutions that were taking place in Sodom, the Midrash associates the cry with one specific individual who was engaged in a very pointed prayer to God:
Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, #25
… Peleṭit, daughter of Lot, was wedded to one of the magnates of Sodom. She saw a certain very poor man in the street of the city, and her soul was grieved on his account, as it is said, (Iyov 30:25) “Was not my soul grieved for the needy?” What did she do? Every day, when she went out to draw water, she put in her bucket all sorts of provisions from her home, and she fed that poor man. The men of Sodom said: How does this poor man live? When they ascertained the facts, they brought her forth to be burnt with fire. She said: Sovereign of all worlds! Maintain my right and my cause (at the hands of) the men of Sodom. And her cry ascended before the Throne of Glory. In that hour the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Said: I will now descend, and I will see whether the men of Sodom have done according to the cry of this young woman. I will Turn her foundations upwards, and the surface thereof shall be turned downwards, as it is said: “I will now descend, and I will see whether they have done altogether “HaKeTza’akata” (according to her cry), which is come unto me” “According to their cry” is not written here (in the text), only “According to her cry.” …
R. Lau writes in conclusion:
…I do not think that the Tora objects to wealth in terms of itself. However, it casts a light upon and warns concerning the sin that potentially affects a wealthy society. Compassion is to be found and spreads from legislation that protects members of the society, particularly those most in need. Perhaps this is the reason for the choosing of the Jewish people—who dwell in a place that is dependent upon rain, a place which is very dependent upon God’s Kindness, and therefore consigns man to dwell in a manner that is a bit more restrained, a bit less secure, and a whole lot more kind.
It seems to me that the question that Sodom raises is whether human nature is such, that inevitably, a “Lord of the Flies” situation will result in one “stronger” group discriminating against another “weaker” one, essentially Sodom is a microcosm of the world destroyed by the Flood, or is this an aberration, and people by and large are better and more sensitive than what was evidenced in Sodom? While a “perfect storm” evolved between the abundant natural resources that were available to the Sodomites and their predilections towards cruelty and bullying, clinically looking at the rampant tribalism from which mankind still suffers, and the insecurity that leads to seek out those over whom one can manufacture a sense of superiority, it would seem that what pertained in Sodom was typical. Only with strict adherence to the rules of the Tora can man hope to rise above these tendencies and live in peace with even those who are different from him, racially economically, and religiously.