Judaism: Vayera: Selfishness is Cruelty
Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
A Very Fine City
The population of Sodom and its environs was “wicked and sinful to G-d in the extreme.” Though the Biblical narrative is light on specifics, the Talmud is more forthcoming.
The Talmud relates that they were wicked in body, a reference to sexual promiscuity, sinful with money, meaning cruel and inhospitable, the words to G-d imply that they blasphemed, meaning deliberately transgressed G-d’s will, and the words in the extreme refer to murder.
To illustrate, the courts of Sodom rewarded criminals and penalized victims. The law stipulated that if you injured your fellow you were entitled to remuneration for bleeding him. If you struck a pregnant woman and caused a miscarriage you were entitled to take her home and impregnate her. If you invited an outsider to a wedding, you forfeited your robes to the town elders and went home naked.
The city’s customs were worse than its laws. If a wealthy visitor came to Sodom they would let him stay the night and then find legal excuses to steal his money. If a poor visitor came to Sodom, they would give him coin, but refuse to sell him bread, when he finally died from starvation, they took back their coin. If he was tall and asked for lodgings they gave him a short bed and hacked off his legs to make him fit. If he was short and asked for lodgings they gave him a long bed and stretched him all night to make him fit. One day they discovered a young maiden feeding a wretched stranger, they bathed her in honey and left her overnight near a bee nest. All night they heard her screams and in the morning she was dead. A fine city, eh?
The Incriminating Sin
It is clear that Sodom’s population violated many of the Noahide laws. They were guilty of blasphemy, murder, promiscuity#, theft and failure to establish a legitimate judicial system. In the Noahide code, each of these sins carries a death penalty. Yet the prophet Ezekial proclaimed that the sin for which they were indicted and convicted was their refusal to support the poor.
This is perplexing for two reasons. First, compared to the cruelty and impropriety of the other sins, this one seems minor. Second, charity, according to most codifiers, is not obligatory in the Noahide code.
The Fabric of Society
Charity might not be listed as a Noahide obligation, but to refrain from charity as the Sodomites did and to prevent others from being charitable undermines the entire purpose of the Noahide code.
G-d gave the Noahide code to Adam and later Noah to establish a framework for an ethical and functional society. The code enshrines the sanctity of Divine worship and the judicious rule of law, it protects the sanctity of life, family and property and ensures the proper treatment of animals.
A society of judicious comportment is streamlined and efficient, each emulating the moral behavior of the other, striving for peace and stability. The absence of lawful governance results in chaos where one strives to outdo the other in impropriety and brazenly prevents others from proper behavior.
Such was the chaos that reigned in Sodom. When the entire society embarked on a campaign of exclusiveness and insularity, they began by barring strangers from their midst and concluded by turning against each other. Before long they were entirely consumed by a desperate need to hold onto every penny and punished others who gave to charity. They were mired in a terrible misery; bitter toward each other and themselves.
Society cannot function this way. A society is defined by the interaction of variant ranks and backgrounds. When people grow insular and stop interfacing society becomes a disparate collection of individuals, each committed to barring the other. Before long they turn on each other and take indiscriminately from each other.
Withholding charity is not an infraction of the Noahide Code, but preventing an entire society from being charitable by the threat of sword violates the premise and purpose of the code. Such behavior was inexcusable and was therefore punished by G-d.
Selfishness is Cruel
As we read this story today, thousands of years later, we must ask what lesson can be gleaned from it.
To me the most important lesson that arises from this sordid tale is that selfishness is cruel. Though we do our best to ignore and deny this truth there is really no way of escaping it. It is a fact and I will repeat it again, selfishness is cruel. All crime and sin begins with selfishness; we are all guilty – everyone is selfish to one degree or another. I don’t mean we are all megalomaniacs, I simply refer to the basic fact that in our eyes, our needs are very if not most important.
The moment we embark on this path we are on a slippery slope. How important is it that my needs be fulfilled and precisely which of my needs are critical? What was once simply a vice is before long regarded as a need and if I am precious and my needs are critical, it is understandable and excusable if I cut a few corners and break a few rules to get what I need. It begins with small infractions and white lies, but once we start slipping, the slope drags us down. Soon we grow comfortable with improper then immoral and finally illegal behavior such as murdering others to achieve our aims.
The people of Sodom lived on a fertile plain and were wealthy. Their protectionism and anti immigration phobia began as an effort to preserve their wealth by preventing immigrants from depleting their resource rich city, but it escalated into full blown cruelty, torture and eventually murder. They were not a murderous nation, they were a selfish nation; they never set out to murder, they set out to protect. But they slipped down the slope and resorted to murder. Without noticing, they became a murderous lot.
Hindsight is 20/20. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from history. Today we know that protectionism and anti immigration are selfish sentiments. These paths seem innocent at the onset, but taken too far, they wear away the fabric of society.