The ancient cities of Sodom, Amorah (Gomorrah), Admah, and Tzevayim sinned to such an extreme that the Almighty destroyed them all (a fifth, smaller city, Tzohar, was narrowly spared). We read:

The L‑rd rained down upon Sodom and Amorah brimstone and fire from heaven, from the L‑rd. And He turned over these cities and the entire plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the vegetation of the ground.1

According to Rashi, “these cities and the entire plain” refers to all four cities. Likewise, before he died, Moses cautioned that through the Israelites’ wrongdoing, destruction could befall the Holy Land “like the overturning of Sodom, Amorah, Admah, and Tzevayim.”2 Yet the Torah clearly states that the fire and brimstone only rained down upon two of the four cities—Sodom and Amorah.

Why the different levels of treatment? If all four cities were overturned, why were two first also incinerated?

Why Were Only Two Cities Burned?

The Rebbe suggests that there must be something clearly different about the cities of Sodom and Amorah, a difference we already know about, which is why Rashi, usually so helpful, does not feel the need to comment.

At the moment G‑d decided the fate of those sinful places, the verse reads:

The L‑rd said, “The cry of Sodom and Amorah has become great, and their sin has become very grave.”3

Only Sodom and Amorah are mentioned, while Admah and Tzevayim are not.

What was it about Sodom and Amorah that had them singled out? All four cities were ultimately destroyed, presumably because they had all sinned so egregiously there was no hope for repentance. So, why were two spared incineration?

Some4 suggest that Sodom and Amorah were the main cities, and thus held the most blame. But, according to this reasoning, Sodom was the main city, so why mention Amorah too? After all, when Abraham pleaded with G‑d to spare the doomed cities, he argued that there must be some righteous people in Sodom (to avert their destruction),5 even though he was arguing in the defense of all the cities. Clearly, then, Sodom and Amorah were different from the other two. But, in which way?

The Names Are Not the Same

The Rebbe points out that this is not our first encounter with these doomed cities. In Genesis we read about a war between the “Four Kings” and the “Five Kings,” during which Abraham intervenes to rescue his nephew, Lot.

In the telling of that story, the Torah lists the names of the Five Kings:

They waged war with Bera, king of Sodom; and with Birsha, king of Amorah; Shineav, king of Admah; and Shemever, king of Tzevayim.6

Rashi cites a Midrash7 which interprets the kings’ names as indicative of their wickedness, based on their Hebrew meanings:

Bera (king of Sodom) indicates two types of wickedness. Hence, his name implies that “He was evil to Heaven and evil to people.”

Birsha (king of Amorah) also indicates a double evil, and hence his name indicates that “He was outstanding in his wickedness.”

Shineav (king of Admah) serves as an acronym for “He hated his Father in Heaven.”

Shemever (king of Tzevayim) can be interpreted as if to say, “He developed the ability to rebel against G‑d.”

There is a clear distinction between the first two and the last two. The kings of Sodom and Amorah are portrayed as being guilty of sins against Heaven, as well as evils against people. By contrast, the kings of Admah and Tzevayim are presented as only hating or rebelling against G‑d, but not being cruel to humans.

This, then, is the key to understanding the differing fates of the cities. The inhabitants of Sodom and Amorah were guilty not only of turning against the Almighty, but of crimes against their fellow human beings.

When the prophet Ezekiel railed against the people of his time for being uncaring to the vulnerable, he compared them to the Sodomites:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.

And based on the name of their king, we can assume this mistreatment of people was true also of Amorah.

Why It Matters

We know from several of Rashi’s previous comments that the punishment for human cruelty is far more severe than that meted out for rebellion against G‑d. Most notably, Rashi highlights how the people who created the Tower of Babel to defy G‑d were merely dispersed, while in Noah’s time everything was destroyed:

The former did not stretch forth their hands against G‑d, whereas the latter did stretch forth their hands against G‑d, to wage war against Him. Nevertheless, the former were drowned, while the latter did not perish from the world. That is because the Generation of the Flood were robbers and there was strife between them, and they were therefore destroyed. But they behaved with love and friendship among themselves… Thus, you learn from this, how greatly conflict is disliked, and how important peace is.8

When people behave with cruelty towards one another, it undermines the very core of civilization. It is in conflict with the entire purpose of G‑d’s creation.

That is why Sodom and Amorah received two punishments: being burned to the ground and being overturned, reflecting the evils of which they were guilty. In the case of the flood, their uncivilized behavior led to the wiping out of land via water. In the case of Sodom and Amorah, their civilization-harming conduct led to the destruction of the land via fire. In both cases, the actual land was destroyed, signifying a radical disapproval of the people’s interpersonal relations.

While all four cities had committed unbearable sins and were overturned, only Sodom and Amorah were also burned, making those cities nearly impossible to rebuild. That is the fate of places in which people treat each other with callousness and vindictiveness. Sodom became a by-word for evil, not because of the way its people behaved toward G‑d, but because of the treatment its inhabitants meted out to other people.

The lesson is clear: No sinning is good, but sins against our own neighbors are the worst. The Almighty will look far kindlier upon those who disrespect Him, as long as they respect their fellow humans.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 35, Parshat Vayera II.