Frequently, we read of the evilness of Sodom, an archetype that has survived for generations. Whether it be in literature, movies or other media, to mention or equate someone or something to Sodom is to invoke the name great evil. However, if one were to actually read the text of this week’s portion, Vayera, it is actually not so clear what exactly the evilness of the place was.
Then God said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” (Genesis 18:20-21)
What is the outrage? What is their sin that is so grave? Why does God feel it necessary to then obliterate the two cities? To attempt and answer, it is useful to look at the original Hebrew of these verses. Specifically fascinating is the gender of the word, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָ֛הּ, translated here as the “outcry” but is literally translated as her outcry. The rabbis are puzzled by this disagreement in gender of the words. The previous occurrence of a feminine noun would be the names of Sodom or Gemorrah, and indeed, many of the commentators assume that the outcry is from the cities themselves.
However, there is a powerful exegetical thread that dives deep into the midrash that extrapolates from that verb, that her outcry must refer to a woman in Sodom, specifically one of the daughters of Lot, Pelotit. In this Midrash, the rabbis describe a city that has passed an ordinance forbidding giving assistance to those in need. Those guilty of trespassing this law would be burnt to death. Pelotit is caught giving sustenance to a man in need, and subsequently burnt to death.
The revulsion of the text is not simply that no one thought it necessary to assist those in need, but that those in power cloaked this evil behavior in a veneer of legality by passing an ordinance. They attempted to make wicked immoral behaviour the norm, something that all should, if not necessarily aspire to but at the very least accept without question.
That passive acceptance by the populace was at the heart of the condemnation, not the individual actions of evil. At the point a society is willfully and publicly committing acts such as these, they are beyond hope. The work of people such as Lot, and his uncle Abraham, are required to combat these insidious attempts to legitimise evil. Let us be inspired by their ultimately successful example to combat those who seek to legalise the modern day evils in our midst of greed, apathy toward one another, and other acts that undermine the very fabric of our society. By committing toward one another and fighting injustice wherever we find it, we both strengthen those who most need it and combat complacency that allows evil to thrive.
Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth