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What was the horrific crime of sodom? Their credo: what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours

Don't Be Fair

Don't Be Fair

Ethics 5:10

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The book of Genesis (in chapters 13-14 and 18-19) tells us about the evil city of Sodom.

First we read how Lot, Abraham's nephew, settled in Sodom despite the fact that its inhabitants were "very evil and sinful to G‑d." Sodom is ravaged by Cherdolaomer's armies, and Abraham comes to the rescue of his captured nephew. Then we find Abraham pleading with G‑d to spare the sinful city in the merit of the righteous residents that may be there, but it turns out that not even ten such persons can be found. Two angels, disguised as men, visit the city, but only Lot will offer them hospitality. Lot saves them from the Sodomite mob, and they, in turn, rescue him and his two daughters before destroying the city.

What were the sins of Sodom? In the English language, the name of the city is synonymous with sexual perversion. This derives from the Torah's account of how the mob surrounding Lot's house demanded that he hand over his two guests to them "that we may rape them." But the traditional Jewish sources -- the Talmud, Midrashim and the Commentaries -- have a different angle on the Sodom story. There, the emphasis is not on their sexual sins, but on their lack of hospitality and their virulent opposition to anyone who dared share any of the city's wealth with a stranger.

In the words of the Talmud: "The men of Sodom were corrupted only on account of the good which G‑d had lavished upon them... They said: Since there comes forth bread out of our earth, and it has the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth? Come, let us abolish the practice of lodging travelers in our land..."

They even found a way to be charitable while ensuring that no stranger would benefit from their charity: "If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a dinar, upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was sold to him. When he died, each came and took back his dinar." They went so far as to decree: "Whoever hands a piece of bread to a pauper or stranger shall be burned at the stake."

The story of Sodom appears in the Torah against the background of Abraham's life. Indeed, Sodom is the antithesis of Abraham, who is portrayed by the Torah as the very personification of chessed (benevolence). Abraham gives of himself, materially (providing food and lodgings to wayfarers) and spiritually (sharing the truths he discovered, praying for Sodom); the Sodomite is intent on keeping for himself what is his.

What's notable about the people of Sodom is that they are not thieves (as was the generation of the Flood). Even when they deprive an interloper of his possessions, they are careful to do it in a "legal" manner. In fact, their basic philosophy seems quite benign. In the words of the Ethics of the Fathers:

One who says, "What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours" -- this is the trait of Sodom.

What can be more fair? Granted, the people of Sodom took this to quite repulsive extremes. But is every person who declares "What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours" a Sodomite? All he's saying is, "I won't touch what is yours, but don't expect me to give you anything."

To the Jew, such fairness is the essence of evil.

Yanki Tauber served as editor of Chabad.org
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Cliff Kraut March 30, 2016

Hi Yanki,
It would be helpful if you would give the book and page of your Talmud sources in footnotes. For example, what is the source of "The men of Sodom were corrupted only on account of the good which G‑d had lavished upon them..." Reply

Louie of Texas Texas November 8, 2014

I enjoyed this article very much. For a long time I have thought that we (in America) are walking a treacherous path by trying to keep the poor of Mexico from entering this country. Your article helps me better understand my thoughts. G'd has blessed this nation, yet we are doing our best to keep the poor of Mexico from sharing in the wealth. My ancestors came here seven generations before I was born here. I enjoy wealth because they were freely able to establish themselves in this land. What right do I have to say this wealth belongs to me and the poor cannot share in it.? None! Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel November 6, 2009

My previous posting is not clear enough. Today we give charitably very little but we are doing worse that the Sodomites, because our socity has the economic philosophy of exploiting what ever we can for our own benefit. The unequal opportunities to earn in our society, results in huge differences between the rich and the poor.

With this awareness, instead of merely continuing with the (noble) charatible aims and gifts, surely it would be better to work for the greater social justice of making the opportunity to earn a more equal thing?

It is my claim that the Mosiac Laws on land do provide for this kind of social justice, if we would but try to understand them and to interpret them for application to today's community and its macroeconomic functioning.

To cut a long story short, this should be done by the development of improved macroeconomic theories and by the lobbying for their logical conclusions, which involves the taxation of land values instead of person income. Reply

tzvi kaplan brooklyn November 5, 2009

Not to be presumptuous but I think you left out the reason (maybe on purpose) why this kind of "fairness" is evil. Everything in this world belongs to G-d and he gives it to us on condition that we will share it with others. Thus one who does not do the will of G-d and claims "what's mine is mine" is evil. Reply

Tzipporah San Diego, CA, USA June 2, 2009

It saddens me that people struggle with "what's mine is mine and what's yours and yours." When we don't give freely of ourselves (tangible possessions and our time) we become too selfish. There is much to be gained from giving, especially the gift of something one treasures. I believe gifts should be given to those in need and to those who are in spiritual need. Small hand made gifts go a long way to those who have "everything." I agree with the Sages "What's mine is yours and what's yours is yours" is the best philosophy. Imgaine what our world would be like if everyone thought that way. We'd all be rich in every way possible. Reply

David Chester petach-Tikva, Israel March 5, 2009

Fairness is not evil. The Sodom situation as described above is an exageration of a precise nature which is inhuman. But instead, to replace it with a society where everyone exploits the others is worse.

If indeed our natures are only "to satisfy our endless desires with the least exertion" (economic axiom) where these desires are only material ones, then indeed we are poor in spirit. But in practice the economic desire to be rich influences us all and takes away our confidence so that we prefer to give very little and save our wealth for use during harder times (which ave recently arrived).

The lack of social justice in our society should motivate us to give but instead we are inclined to hoard. So would you not agree that it is more necessary to work to have social justice rather than to make donations to those in need? Reply

Ariel Sokolovsky Boston, MA June 12, 2005

[You write:] "In the evil city of Sodom innocent children were destroyed. Just as in the Exodus story countless innocent first-born were killed (had to be killed, according to the story). And in the Noah story almost every single child had to drown. I simply don't see fairness, justice, goodness in this -- and certainly no beauty. Of course I'm also not claiming that I understand G-d's ways."

Rabbi Saadia Gaon writes that in such and similar cases G-d Almighty finds a way to compensate a person or even an animal for a pain suffered unjustly.

The Kabbalists explain that a person who sinned in a past reincarnation and for example did teshuvah in his old age but wasn't totaly purified from his sins can be punished in the future one, like Job who was reincarnation of Terach father of Abraham see more on this here: http://www.kabbalaonline.org/safedteachings/gor/

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Anonymous October 24, 2004

In a sense, the Jews in Nazi Germany did get German indifference. How many people cared?

See, indifference says: "I'm dead. You can scream in terror and agony... you can bow your head in prayer, it's all the same to me. Surely you don't expect what is dead to care?"

That, to me, is the horror of indifference.

Hatred says:"I'm alive in a way few things are. And there's only one thing I want. To destroy and do so in the most horrible way possible."

That's the horror of hatred.

I need to do more thinking. Perhaps one can't say that indifference is worse than hatred, or the other way around.
Reply

Jim Toker October 23, 2004

I won't comment on the first part of your post (I share the sentiment). But your last paragraph gave me pause. Do you really mean that? did you really think through what you mean? I'm sure that the Jews in Nazi Europe, for example, would have much prefered German indifference... Reply

Anonymous October 22, 2004

In the evil city of Sodom innocent children were destroyed. Just as in the Exodus story countless innocent first-born were killed (had to be killed, according to the story). And in the Noah story almost every single child had to drown.

I simply don't see fairness, justice, goodness in this -- and certainly no beauty. Of course I'm also not claiming that I understand G-d's ways.

Regarding: "What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours" (i.e., "I won't touch what is yours, but don't expect me to give you anything") -- that to me is indifference..... which, to me, is a thousand times + worse than even all-consuming hatred. Reply

Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.
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