In this week’s parsha we are introduced to the city of Sodom where ethics was non-existent. There was a dispute between the shepherds of Avraham and the shepherds of Lot. Avraham said to Lot that there should not be any arguments between their shepherds. So, Avraham suggested that they go separate ways. Lot liked the topography in the area of Sodom, so he decided to live there. The Torah states, “And the men of Sodom were extremely evil and wicked to G-d.” What was so bad about them?
The Talmud and Midrash gives us some insight into the personalities and lifestyles in Sodom. The Midrash does not necessarily mean to tell us that this is exactly what happened. Rather, the Rabbis are giving us a picture of what life was like.
One area that the Rabbis discuss is the Sodom style of hospitality. The Torah teaches us that Sodom was “well-watered – like the garden of G-d.” That would teach us that the crops were plentiful and good. There was a high standard of living. But, the people of Sodom were selfish. They would not share their wealth – their “garden of G-d” - with people from other areas. Measure for measure, G-d turned the area of Sodom - one of the most fertile areas on Earth - into what today is infamous for its barrenness and desolation – the area of the Dead Sea.
The midrash teaches us that one had to cross a river to enter Sodom. The bridge fee was 4 coins. A person who swam across the river to avoid the bridge fee was forced to pay eight coins.
It once happened that a traveler, ignorant of the local custom, swam across the river, hoping to save himself the four coins. As he tried to enter the city, the guards stopped him. “Pay the bridge fee!” they demanded. “But I did not use the bridge,” the hapless fellow replied. “I swam across the river instead.” “In that case, you owe us eight coins.”
The stranger refused to pay the exorbitant fee, and the guards beat him. When they were finished with him, the wounded man dragged himself to the magistrate and demanded compensation for his suffering. The judge listened carefully to his tale of woe and then issued his verdict: “For having crossed the river, you owe eight coins. As to the beating, you must reward each of the fine gentlemen at the gate, because everyone knows the medical benefit of an occasional bloodletting.” That is an example of Sodom ethics.
One of the most famous midrashim is about the “Sodom Bed”. A person was put on the bed. If the person was too short, they stretched him. If he was too tall, they chopped him down to size. That sounds like a nice story for kids. But, the Midrash is telling us something else about Sodom. A person had to conform to Sodom regulations. A person who did not conform was not welcome in Sodom.
That is actually a frightening idea. One who doesn’t conform is out. If you can’t be like everybody else, you can’t stay here.
The residents of Sodom did like guests – as long as they were wealthy. They would steal – but in small increments – too small for the victim to take the thief to court. Is it worth the time and effort to go to court for a $10 theft? However, when this happened time and again to the same victim, he became impoverished.
The people of Sodom were selfish – unwilling to part with any of their possessions. In Pirkei Avos we learn that one whose attitude is, “what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is a characteristic of Sodom. The every-man-for-himself attitude may seem harmless, but as these stories reveal, it will ultimately lead to evil. It is based upon the desire to always have more for oneself - more money, more land, more jewels, more servants. No thought was given to what others had. No one cared about helping those less fortunate.
This was the type of neighborhood that Lot chose for his family – completely opposite the style of life he had seen living in the environs of Avraham- where every person was important . . . Avraham showed concern for all people. . . selfishness was the furthest idea from Avraham’s lifestyle.
Avraham taught the world the course of ethics. Sodom sought to pervert those ideas, but, in the end flunked the course.