Rabbi Nathan Martin
In this week’s Torah portion Vayera, we encounter the somewhat unexpected decision by God to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. As a justification for this dramatic act, God says to Abraham, “The outcry is great,” and the crime is significant (lit. “heavy” in Hebrew). But God does not provide many specifics to justify such a drastic judgment.
Loathe to see such a lacuna, our ancient rabbis and midrash fill in the gap. Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (Ninth Century) tells the story of Lot’s daughter — Pelotit — who sustained a poor man with food against the cruel decree of the town elders that all the poor should starve. When she was found to be the “culprit” and sentenced to death herself, it was Pelotit’s outcry that caught God’s attention.
In another medieval commentary, the midrash Ein Ya’akov imagines a similar perversion of justice that had permeated the legal system of the town. It imagines four corrupt judges who administer justice in the town in a way that only favored might over right.
In the midrash’s words, “If a person struck his neighbor’s wife, and she miscarried, they used to decide that the woman should be given to the striker,” or the stipulation that “if a guest invited to a wedding bring one with him, that the inviter be stripped of his garments.” Perhaps it was their outcry of injustice that caught God’s attention.
A third midrash found in the Babylonian Talmud envisions the sins of Sodom as a kind of tragedy of the commons where people were not cognizant of, nor made aware of the damage of thoughtless behavior.
In the midrash’s words, “When there was anyone who had a row of bricks, each and every one of the people of Sodom would come and take one brick and say to him: I am taking only one, and you are certainly not particular about so inconsequential an item, and they would do this until none remained. And when there was anyone who would cast garlic or onions to dry, each and every one of the people of Sodom would come and take one and say to him: I took only one garlic or onion, and they would do this until none remained.” (BT San 109b)
These types of perverse punishments and self-preserving behaviors elaborated in the midrash point to a world justice that seems to be flipped on its head, and people don’t think of the other. Actions that were kind and benevolent — helping the poor, inviting someone into community — threatened the hierarchy of power that sought to maintain isolation and fragmentation among the town’s residents. Actions requiring communal cooperation were stymied.
In the words of Nechama Liebowitz, a contemporary commentator, “The height of [the townspeople’s] wickedness lay not in the activities of individual transgressors but in the fact that such iniquitous behavior was clothed with a cloak of legality;” that it was a case of institutional transgression.
It is interesting to reflect on the question of fairness and justice given the violence and war we have all been seeing and following now taking place in Israel. We find ourselves trying to judge just and right action — actions of justice that are deserving, and unjust actions that are moral violations, such as the indiscriminate killing of civilians or taking of hostages.
I’m not sure at that moment that I have a full enough perspective to rule on how much destruction is justified in this conflict. But I do know that these midrashim point us to an important lesson that, like the Divine, who responded to the cries of injustice in Sodom, we, too, must work to keep our ears and hearts open today to cries of injustice as well, and to make sure that we are not inadvertently contributing to unjust institutional structures here and elsewhere.
Rabbi Nathan Martin serves as the associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel of Media and serves on the Board of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, an interfaith nonprofit focused on climate change and climate justice work The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.