Perhaps we all feel a need to be a self-made man or woman, to stand up on our own and claim we got there bootstrapping all the way. To say, “I don’t need no favors, no pity, no one’s hand to pull me out of the mud.”

And it’s healthy to strive for independence, to yell out as a child, “I do it!” as an adolescent, “It’s my life!” and as an adult to turn down charity when you can make it on your own.

Yet at the same time, taken all the way, it’s deadly. Deadly for society, deadly for the individual.

A world where nobody needs anybody is, well, the world of Sodom and its four sister cities.

Joe the Sodomite

Sodom and Gomorrah have come to represent the epitome of evil. After all, G‑d destroyed them with fire and brimstone. But, perhaps surprisingly, the Talmud does not associate Sodom principally with idolatry, murder, sexual impropriety, thievery or even corrupt business practices.

The Talmud uses term midat S’dom (roughly translated as “a Sodomite attitude”) to describe the person who cannot bear someone else benefiting from his property, even when it doesn’t hurt him in the slightest.

Here’s a classic example mentioned the Talmud:1

Joe owns a large tract of land that is not in use and that he doesn’t wish to lease, and discovers that some homeless individual is camping out on it. So he tells him to get off. We say to him, “The other guy gains and you lose nothing, so what’s your problem?” And Joe answers, “It’s my property. I want him out.”

Joe is infected with a Sodomite attitude. The Talmud even discusses whether the homeless camper can ask the court to prevent Joe from throwing him out—because the Torah says, “You must do that which is good and upright.”2 What Joe is doing, from Talmudic eyes, is pure evil.

The final judgment is that we can’t legally compel Joe in this case, since that would be limiting the statutes of property ownership.3 But there are cases in which property ownership is not diminished and no significant inconvenience is caused. In such instances, the court can indeed compel or restrain someone with a stubborn Sodomite attitude.

There’s another description in the Talmud of the Sodomite attitude: One who says, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.”4 Or, as Rabbi Obadiah Bartenura reads that, “I don’t want to give you anything, and I would appreciate if you don’t give me anything.”5

Okay, so he’s not the kind of guy you want on your baseball team, but is he really the core of evil? He hasn’t ripped anyone off. He hasn’t lied to anyone. In fact, he’sTurns out that worse than running a corrupt business is having no business at all. brutally honest. He tells you his approach to life and sticks to it. He’s not running a corrupt business. He doesn’t want to engage in any commerce at all. He desires total independence and isolation. He says, “Let me be and I’ll let you be.”

Yet our sages teach that if you take this all the way, this is the Sodomite. The worst of all evils.

Turns out that worse than running a corrupt business is having no business at all. But why is that?

Sodomite Isolationism

A pinch of Lurianic Kabbalah could help us here. When the world was created, as Genesis says,6 it was at first “tohu.” Tohu, explains Rabbi Isaac Luria, is a state of isolated ideals.7

A world of tohu is a world where no two things can work together. A world where the weather is either hot or cold but never warm, where people are either super-friendly or hostile but never just chill, where either I run things or you run things but we can’t cooperate, where I don’t need you and you don’t need me and so no one has any business with the other.

G‑d was not pleased with that world. But that was okay, because it rapidly erupted all on its own. Fragments of it fell and reorganized to become our world, a world where harmony, or tikun, is possible.

Now for some words from a more recent kabbalist and chassidic master, Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch, writing in 1914:8

The souls of the people of Sodom originated from the realm of Tohu. That explains why they were isolationists—neither wishing to benefit anyone nor to receive from The souls of the people of Sodom originated from the realm of anyone. In this way, their land was isolated from all other lands and they managed their own resources so that they didn't need to receive any goods from any foreign land. Even amongst themselves, each one was isolated and independent.

But when G‑d made the earth, He did so with wisdom, so that all the world functions in a way of tikun—the diametric opposite of Sodom's isolationism. The world is made so that each region must receive its needs from some other region. Indeed, that is what trade is all about—that each land both receives from others and gives to others.

This is the meaning of the verse, "And He established His agudah upon the earth."9 An agudah is a collaboration of individuals, such as a collective, in which everyone works together and no one is complete without the other. This is how G‑d created the world to operate.

But Sodom did not operate that way. No one would accept anything from anyone else. They said, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.”

The Slippery Slope of Sodom

How do we see that among the people of Sodom? Well, they weren’t hospitable. Not only did they not take in guests, they couldn’t even allow others to have guests stay in their home. That’s the central point of the story with Lot, Abraham’s nephew who lived in Sodom. When Lot, had some guests in his home, the people of Sodom staged a protest outside his door and threatened to harm the guests and their host.10

The Talmud tells more stories about the people of Sodom and their nasty, even brutal treatment of visitors. You can read some of them here.

How did Sodom get this way? The Talmud explains that as well.11

You see, Sodom, Gomorrah along with three other cities formed a large settlement at the terminus of the Jordan River. It’s a deep valley and before these cities were overturned the Jordan branched out into a delta, watering the earth well and sprouting rich, lush greenery. The earth was rich in nutrients, as well as precious minerals. All in all, a virtual garden of Eden.

So the people who settled there decided, “We don’t need to trade with anyone. We have everything we need right here. And we don’t want them coming here, either. Why should we share any of this with anyone else?”

Next thing, they constructed a bridge at the gateway to their land and charged a toll to enter—even if you would choose to swim across. They established laws prejudiced against visitors and found every way they could to discourage any passerby.

Things only got worse from there, until there was no friendship, no It all began with a need not to need anyone.camaraderie even amongst each other. Eventually, the people’s treatment of merchants, transients, the homeless, the downtrodden and the needy became heartless and viciously cruel.

And so the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel) describes the sin of Sodom as “arrogance,” saying “She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.”12

Certainly there were many detestable sins in Sodom and her daughter cities. But it all began with a need not to need anyone.

The Need To Be Needy

What we learn from the story of Sodom is that commerce is good. Just the fact that one person sold and the other bought is good. Because people needing people is good. Being insufficient is good. Good for the world, good for the community and good for the individual.

Self-sufficiency, on the other hand, is a bad deal all around. We all say we want to be perfectly self-sufficient, but deep down we recognize that would be a nightmare.

Ultimately, it’s our interpersonal needs and the commerce between us that bind all of humanity together as a single, healthy organism. What’s a healthy organism? A counter-entropic entity united by circulation of energy. And that is what makes a healthy human world as well: A world where people add value to life by discovering how much they need one another.

The ancient Midrash13 describes King David asking of G‑d, “Why couldn’t You make everyone in Your world equal in means?”

G‑d replied, “If I would do so, how would kindness and truth be sustained?”

When someone wrote to the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, that the final redemption cannot be complete until “the needy disappear from the earth,”14 the Rebbe responded that he did not concur. People must always need one another. There will always be poverty and inequality. Not poverty of basic means—we will live in a prosperous world where “delicacies will be as plentiful as the dust.” Rather, there will always be a healthy imbalance of commodities that will require commerce for redistribution.

One person may be richly steeped in abstract knowledge but poor in application, while another does not fair well in abstractions but has a knack for putting ideas to work. One has water while the other has bread. One has a fire inside him while the other stays cool. All have in common one thing: They all need one another for their own wholeness.

And it must be that way because every person, every created being, indeed even the Creator and Manager of the universe at times in some way must act not only as a provider but also as a recipient.15 Neither role is less important than the other. It’s that dynamic that makes a beautiful world.16

Perhaps it was the Talmudic take on Sodom that inspired David Ricardo, the great Jewish economist, to come up with his highly influential theory of competitive advantage which explains why specializing and trading is beneficial not only for individuals but for nations as well.

People need to need each other, not only in commerce, Make yourself a person who is needed and you will acquire at least one true friend.but in every aspect of life. That’s perhaps the most ignored but vital need of the human being: the need to be needed. Yet deeper—and even more vital—the need to need others.

“Acquire yourself a friend!” our sages taught.17 People ask, “Why use the word acquire? That makes it sound like you have to buy friends. Why not just make friends?”

But now it makes sense. People are friends and stay friends because they need one another. Even with all the love in the world, they are only truly bonded when they find a need for one another in their hearts. Make yourself a person who is needed and you will acquire at least one true friend.

And allow yourself to need that friend. Really need.