Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.
The city of Sodom is primarily identified in the Torah as the epitome of evil and the antithesis of Avraham’s ideology. No other city gained such notoriety in the Bible as a hotbed of immorality and unethical behavior. As the Torah itself affirms unequivocally:
“The people of Sodom were very evil and sinful before G-d.” (Bereshit 13:13)
Sodom was severely punished for its sins, so severely that the Torah used its destruction as a symbol for future generations:
“The whole area is burnt and full of brimstone and salt, and it cannot be sown or bear fruit or let grass grow on it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Amora… which G-d overthrew in His anger and wrath.” (Devarim 29:22)
What was so bad about Sodom’s behavior that it warranted receiving such punishment? What prompted the utter destruction of this once prosperous area in such violent fashion? The Torah says that the people of Sodom engaged in illicit sexual acts, but such promiscuity and incest were common in the ancient world. Why was Sodom the only city that was punished for these widespread sins?
Ramban offers two principles which can explain the unique fate of Sodom: the type of sin involved and the place where it was committed. He quotes the prophet Yehezkel, who says:
“This was the sin of Sodom, your sister: she and her daughters had pride, excess of bread, and abundance of tranquility, and yet she did not strengthen the poor and the needy.”
From this, Ramban concludes that the major sin of Sodom was in the social sphere and not in their sexual conduct. The people of Sodom did not try to ease the lot of the poor and the weak as other nations endeavored to do, and it was this sin that distinguished them as cruel people and that doomed them. Moreover, they committed these crimes in the land of Israel, G-d’s own palace. The spiritual nature of Israel cannot bear such iniquity within its borders.
Chazal (Sanhedrin 109a) add that the people of Sodom had grown haughty and cruel due to their abundance of fertile land and material possessions. They did not wish to share their wealth with anyone else, and therefore all these were destroyed together with them.
While this explanation is firmly based on textual sources, it is still rather puzzling that an entire nation should be incinerated and it’s landscape ruined because of a lack of concern for the poor. It is not even clear that the Noachide laws included any command to give charity and support the needy. Rabbeinu Nissim (Sanhedrin 57a) derives the source for this command from Sodom’s punishment. Yet nowhere does the Torah proscribe capital punishment for the crime of being uncharitable, so why was Sodom punished so severely?
Chazal (Sanhedrin 109) offer detailed descriptions of Sodomite customs:
“If one was using bricks to build his wall or had left his onions to dry in the sun, everyone used to pass by and take one, and when the victim complained, they all said: “I only took one”.
“If one wounded his friend, the judges would demand that the victim pay the aggressor since he had improved his health by bloodletting”
“When a poor person arrived, each person used to give him a coin with his own name on it. None of them gave him bread for his coins and when he died, each person took back his own coin”.
From these vignettes emerges a picture of a town in which evil behavior was officially sanctioned as its way of life. At the time of the flood people also engaged in robbery and cruel behavior, but these behaviors were not officially sanctioned and legislated. Sodom went a step further and established regulations which ensured that all means of enrichment were fair, even those which caused others to become impoverished.
Unfortunately we can find many modern parallels for all these cases. Ambitious politicians and companies often use any means to discredit and weaken their competitors or superiors in order to advance their own goals. Employees cheerfully embezzle company resources (pens, paper, etc.) and then claim that it’s permissible, because the little they took does not hurt the company’s bottom line. Judges sympathize in many cases with the aggressor and find ways to exonerate his behavior. Companies announce huge charity campaigns, which promote their corporate goals but ultimately do not provide any jobs or solutions for poor people. If these are the crimes of Sodom, we may also be in trouble if we condone such actions in our society.
Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, a great sage of our time, suggests that there are two types of justice. Mortal justice can only see the facts as they are. Thus, one who steals from rich or poor is punished to the same degree, even if the poor suffered more from the theft. However divine justice, which is absolute truth, takes into account all the feelings and pain involved. This idea can be derived from David, king of Israel. When the prophet Nathan rebuked him for marrying Bathsheba, he told him the parable of a rich man who stole a poor man’s last sheep. David proclaimed:
“Before G-d, he must die and repay the sheep fourfold”.(Shmuel 2:12)
Mortal law indeed allows for a fourfold payment of the sheep. Divine law, however, takes into account the cruelty and evil of stealing a poor man’s last sheep. This evil and corruption deserves the death sentence, because it shows that the thief is devoid of the basic human qualities of compassion and mercy. This may be the reason for the divine visitation on Sodom. On a human level, all that they did was deny the poor and the wayfarer their basic comforts. On a divine level, they caused so much cruelty and misery through their immoral legislation that they deserved to be wiped off the face of the earth. Ultimately, the lesson to be learnt is that riches and comfort divorced from morality can lead to behavior like Sodom’s, and the punishment can be far more severe than merely losing those riches.
Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).