While there is no shortage of Biblical verses rebuking Benei Yisrael for their various transgressions, one such indictment which seems imprecise and perhaps overly harsh is the comparison with the people of S’dom and ‘Amorah. As we know, the legacy of S’dom and ‘Amorah is one of unmitigated evil and a benchmark for immorality which is used to this day. Their sins were so complete and evil so absolute that Hashem does not simply cause the cities’ destruction, but completely obliterates them with unparalleled divine wrath. And yet in Eicha we are told that “the sins of the daughter of my people is greater than that of S’dom” (Eicha 4:6), and in the Haftara of Hazon the Navi exclaims “Heed the word of Hashem you leaders of S’dom, listen to the words of our God’s Torah you people of ‘Amorah” (Yeshayahu 1:10). Were the sins of the Jews in fact as serious and complete to warrant such comparisons with S’dom and ‘Amorah?
To answer this question, we should examine the nature of the sins of S’dom and ‘Amorah. Curiously despite the apparent gravity of S’dom’s sins, the Torah does not explicitly tell us what were S’dom’s sins which made them worthy of such enduring infamy. For such details and interpretive direction, we will first turn to the Midrashim.
In commenting on the Mishna that the people of S’dom have no share in the world to come, (M. Sanhedrin 10:3), the Gemara gives some examples of S’dom’s uniquely twisted wickedness B. Sanhedrin 109a-b (English). The Midrashim begin by saying that the people of S’dom viewed their wealth as from Hashem, but they interpreted that to mean that they should be stingy with their God-given wealth. Rava adds that when they found a wealthy individual they would give him a gift of spices. When the person would add this gift to his storeroom, the Sodomites would track the smell and then loot his treasury.
The Gemara continues if someone laid out bricks or onions, people would steal one saying, “I’ve only taken one” – implying that their offense was of no real consequence. If someone injured someone else’s wife, their judges ruled that the offender’s wife should be given to the other as restitution. One passerby refused to pay an unjust toll for crossing a river and was assaulted. When he came before the judges to protest, the judges not only charged him the river fee, but added that he should pay the toll keepers money for the therapeutic act of bleeding him.
There are other stories in the Gemara, but I would like to point out a recurring theme. The evils of S’dom were not simply that they were unethical, but they did so under the pretext of justice or righteousness. They did not simply rob people, but did so through the illusion of moral legitimacy; the corruption was an integral part of the legal system. The nature of S’dom’s sin was that it was not simply wickedness, but evil disguised as morality – corruption with the pretense of justice.
We find this qualification elsewhere in Rabbinic literature. M. Avot 5:10 cites two opinions regarding the person who says “what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” One perspective that this is the “middle” or “typical” person, but others say that this is the trait of S’dom. On the surface this statement seems equitable and fair, but there is latent cruelty in that it does not account for charity. “What is mine is mine” is an intellectually reasonable statement which can mask a miserly and selfish lifestyle. And it is precisely because of the natural inclination to view this statement as legitimate or normal which makes it “middat S’dom.”
To some extent this theme is implicit in the Biblical verses as well. “The people of S’dom were wicked and sinner before God” (Bereishit 13:13), but according to the superficial perspective on an outsider, S’dom seemed “like the garden of God” (Bereishit 13:10). When the people of S’dom wanted to assault Lot’s visiting angels, they said “bring them out and we will know them” (Bereishit 19:5). On a literal level this is a polite invitation, but in the biblical sense its connotation is far more sinister. Once again the good of the superficial hides and masks the obscured reality of evil.1
Now let us reexamine Yeshayahu’s rebuke in Hazon. Obviously we would have expected Benei Yisrael to be sinning at some level, which in this case was widespread social corruption (1:22-23). But similar to the nature of S’dom’s sins, the Jews portrayed themselves as observant and religious, in this case by keeping the public and observable rituals of bringing sacrifices and praying (1:11-15). The casual bystander would observe that the Jews were frum for all intents and purposes, but it was the navi who saw the corruption behind the ritual observance.
In some ways this type of society is worse than one which is purely evil. If the good can successfully mask the evil, then there would be no reason to change since people would only look at the positives of society. In fact, they might even be resistant to change since it would imply that their positive traits are somehow flawed or lacking. Such moral compromising is not only problematic for the wicked people themselves, but for ordinarily good people who can be corrupted by the moral compromising.
Sadly, as evidenced by the continuing galut this is a lesson we have yet to learn. Even regarding the mourning of the hurban we have missed the point. We accept upon ourselves customs of mourning for three weeks and nine days, but in the words of the Navi “who asked this of us (1:12)?” It is apparent from the chapter that Hashem was not swayed by the external religious gestures saying that they were not done for his sake but for the sake of the people’s ego. Rather, what Hashem actually requested was that we should “learn to do good, seek out justice, support the oppressed, give justice to the orphan and defend the widow (1:17).”
The problem is that it is easier to grow a beard for display than it is to grow a spine to fight injustice and corruption. It is likewise easier to close the radio and stop listening to music than it is to open our ears and listen to people’s suffering. We can deprive ourselves of meat, but what of sustaining those who are in need?
This tish’a b’av, I suggest we try the novel approach of actually following the words and ideas of the Navi. Yes, we do not need to abolish the customs of mourning, but they should in no way be seen as a substitute for the ikkar of social change. If we follow the instructions then perhaps we can avoid the fate of S’dom and ‘Amorah, and maybe we can avoid another year of a tish’a b’av.
1. Consider Avraham’s complaint to Hashem regarding S’dom – ha’af tispeh tzaddik im rasha (Bereishit 18:23), which is normally translated as “would you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” However, this translation would fit much better if the Torah had written the definite article – “ha’af tispeh ha-tzaddik im ha-rasha” – or the plural form as tzaddim im r’sha’im. Perhpas tzaddik im rasha is its own category of someone who combines both characteristics – he is righteous with wickedness. We know Hashem will destroy pure evil as he did with the flood, but could the pretense of good – albeit superficial – somehow mitigate the evil? The problem is that when evil and good are so interconnected, good people will become corrupted to the point where this society of “good and bad” could not produce even ten people who were mostly righteous.