The Destruction of Sodom
Rabbi Israel Chait
Transcribed by students
When G-d advised Abraham of His decision to destroy Sodom, Abraham vigorously tried to prevent the destruction. He seemed to question G-d’s judgment and seek some sort of reprieve for the people of Sodom from such an ostensibly, harsh verdict. However, when Abraham was commanded to take his beloved son Isaac as a sacrifice, he attempted to fulfill G-d’s will with alacrity. This puzzling contrast can be explained by analyzing G-d’s system of justice with respect to mankind.
When a mortal judge sentences a criminal, the severity of the sentence is commensurate with the harshness of the offense. In pragmatic terms, the judgment is seeking to protect society and not benefit the criminal. However, G-d’s punishment generally seeks to benefit man, so as to elevate the individual to act upon a higher moral plane. There are exceptions to this principle, as illustrated by the destruction of Sodom. G-d’s decree to destroy Sodom was evidently not the type of judgment intended to benefit them. Rather, it was a determination by G-d that the people of Sodom were no longer deserving existence. The corruption of their lifestyles was without any merit that could justify their continued existence. However, Abraham’s great love of his fellow man propelled him to be an advocate on their behalf. Abraham was questioning whether this type of punishment from G-d, clearly detrimental to the people of Sodom, was just. In Genesis chapter 18, verse 25, Abraham questioned “That be far from Thee to do after this manner to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the Judge of all the Earth, do justly?” Abraham was questioning the justice in G-d’s execution of this detrimental punishment. He was not questioning G-d, but rather trying to comprehend G-d’s administration of justice. Could it be that G-d would slay a righteous person together with a wicked person? G-d’s punishment of Sodom was obviously not beneficial to man, and Abraham was attempting to comprehend the method in which G-d’s justice was being performed.
When Abraham was commanded by G-d to slaughter Isaac, no questions were asked. It was evident to Abraham that this was a decree from G-d, intended to benefit man. Isaac was not a wicked person, deserving extinction. On the contrary, Abraham realized that this commandment was being executed for the benefit of man. Thus, Abraham could not ask any questions. He realized that it is humanly impossible to comprehend how G-d’s action is intended to benefit man. A person cannot question the manner in which a punishment from G-d benefits man. The benefit may be the punishment itself. However, if a judgment is of the kind that is meted out not for the benefit of man, but rather because man no longer deserves to exist, then a person can try to analyze the implementation of G-d’s justice. Abraham, motivated by his great love of his fellow man and his intellectual nature, felt compelled to comprehend G-d’s justice in destroying the entire city. However, this cannot be misconstrued as questioning how G-d’s actions are just. This is beyond human comprehension.
The destruction of the city of Sodom also led to the rescue of Lot and the attempted effort to rescue his wife. This incident is a vivid example of the unfortunate manner in which people view many of the events recited in the Bible. People are overwhelmed with the miraculous fable-like qualities of these stories, which, when learned in their youth, are so appealing. All too often people do not overcome their childhood impressions of the Torah, and fail to appreciate the insightful teachings of the Torah. An analysis of the story of Lot and his wife can help us learn to value the beauty of the Torah’s teachings.
Lot’s wife was punished after she looked back at the destruction of the city of Sodom. Genesis chapter 19, verse 26 states, “And his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” To comprehend this punishment, we must also understand what was so terrible about her looking back.
Chazal, the Rabbis, teach us that she was turned into a pillar of salt because G-d’s punishment is “measure for measure”. Whenever guests were invited to the house, she didn’t give them salt for their food. This is the reason she was turned into a pillar of salt. We must analyze the significance and the relationship between these two factors to appreciate G-d’s justice being measure for measure.
The decree was that Sodom and all its citizens must be destroyed. Lot, however, was not truly a citizen of Sodom. The people of Sodom were not hospitable. Lot was. He greeted the angels and extended to them the courtesy of welcomed guests. In fact, Lot felt such compassion for his guests that when the people of Sodom wanted his guests to be handed over to them, Lot refused. His kindness to his guests even extended to his offering his daughters to the people of Sodom in their stead. However, he insisted that no harm be visited upon his guests. Thus Lot was charitable and deserved salvation since in spirit he was not truly a resident of Sodom. His kindness though, seems misplaced. He was kind to his guests at the expense of being promiscuous with his daughters. This seems to be an awkward type of kindness and rather immoral behavior.
However, we must appreciate Lot as an individual. The Torah is telling us about his exploits because he obviously was a worthy individual. He was not simply an eccentric fool, or the Torah would not elaborate the details of his salvation. Lot was a relative of Abraham, and was a member of his household. He learned the importance of kindness from Abraham and was a true bal chessed, a charitable person. Lot, though, did not adopt Abraham’s concept of kindness. Lot was drawn to Sodom because of his instinctual desires. Genesis chapter 13 at the conclusion of verse 12 states “…and pitched his tent towards Sodom.” Lot was attracted to the sexual permissiveness that pervaded Sodom. Although Lot espoused the concept of loving kindness, he had no concept of sexual morality. Therefore, his behavior was understandable. His theory was to treat his guests with the utmost kindness, even if it compromised the sexual integrity of his daughters. This to Lot was completely logical. It was entirely within his framework. However, it evidences that he was completely divorced from any sense of “kedusha” - sanctity. This attests to the fact that Abraham’s concept of kindness itself was totally different from Lot’s. Kindness for Abraham was based upon his sense of justice. Abraham was the first person to recognize G-d as creator of the universe and possessed a great intellect. His kindness for his fellow man stemmed from his wisdom.
Lot had no philosophical basis for his kindness. It was just emotional goodness based on his sense of being nice. Thus, “kallos rosh”, levity, was not inconsistent with his philosophy. He had no concept of sanctity whereby man was to live his life based upon a higher intellectual plane of kedusha. However, Lot was worthy of salvation. He practiced kindness to his fellow man and was not a consummate citizen of Sodom. Therefore, G-d sent the angels to save him from the destruction of Sodom since the decree was directed against the citizens of Sodom.
Lot’s wife did not share her husband’s value of kindness. The Rabbis tell us that she never gave her guests salt. This is truly indicative of her nature. Her withholding salt was an expression of her emotional state. She was a vicious person who disdained her fellow man. She really did not desire to accommodate guests that visited her house. However, because Lot was a kind person, she had no choice. But she felt compelled to withhold something, not to be totally giving to a fellow human being. Lot’s wife was truly a citizen of Sodom. The Rabbis tell us that she partook. She was unable to be happy if another person was enjoying himself. However, since she was Lot’s wife, G-d gave her an opportunity for salvation. If she did not look back at the destruction of Sodom, she would be saved. Lot’s wife was very happy in Sodom. She shared the values of its citizens and totally identified with them. However, G-d gave her a chance to express a proper ideology. If she repented and realized her wrongdoings and was capable of emotional kindness towards her fellow man, as was Lot, then she would be spared. If she did not look back at Sodom’s destruction, it would reflect that she no longer identified with that evil society, and thus, was worthy of salvation. However, she looked back. She still identified with the people of Sodom and felt badly that they were being destroyed. Therefore, her fate was sealed. She was destined to turn into a pillar salt. This reflected the salt that she was unable to share with her fellow man. Thus, G-d’s method of punishment is measure for measure.
Abraham returned to the site of the destruction the following morning. Abraham also desired to look upon the destruction of Sodom. However, his looking was different than Lot’s wife. Genesis chapter 19, verse 28 states, “Vayashkafe”, Abraham looked, he investigated. “Vayashkafe” indicates not merely looking, but rather, viewing with an intellectual curiosity. Abraham had no identification with the people of Sodom. He came to view the destruction after its conclusion the following morning. His looking was the viewing of a wise individual who wanted to observe the manifestation of G-d’s justice. The Torah is contrasting the method in which an emotional person views the event, to the observation of one who is perfected. The former looks with a sense of despair, yearning, and commiseration. But one such as Abraham, looked to investigate, to comprehend, and to analyze the manner in which G-d’s justice works.