Who could possibly make any excuse for this epitome of evil?
Yet, that is exactly what Rav Yitzchak Berkovits does – not arguing that Sodom wasn’t evil – but explaining what was at the very root of the city’s evil behavior.
In our pediatric study of the story of Sodom, we simplify the actions of the people. The people of Sodom were intrinsically evil, rotten to the core, people who delighted in doing what was wrong. Put simply, Sodomites were sadistic people who derived pleasure from hurting other people. Rav Yitzchak rejects this view as being too childlike. Rather, Rav Yitzchak proposes that the behavior in Sodom stemmed from an ideology that motivated them to act in the way they did – an ideology that is not entirely foreign to us in our own day.
Rav Yitzchak explains that the people of Sodom believed that doing a kindness unto others constituted an act of base cruelty. In providing someone else with what they need, without their having to earn it themselves, we are encouraging them to become dependent upon others for their livelihood. By making them dependent upon others and upon society, we ensure they will never become independent and productive members of society. When depriving individuals of their independence we deprive them of their sense of self-worth. According to the Laws of Sodom, treating people with such cruelty was punishable by death.
It seems almost impossible that any aspect of life of the people of Sodom could have anything of value to teach us. Yet, Rabbi Yehonatan Gefen does just that.
It is becoming increasingly popular to espouse the belief that “welfare” does nothing more than encourage people to remain dependent upon society – to expect to be given everything and to contribute nothing. But the Torah guides us to a middle road which values independence without depriving individuals of their sense of self-worth.
The Torah understands what the people of Sodom did not. The people of Sodom expected that everyone should be able to succeed if they would only make the effort. The Torah clearly understood that this was not the case. Torah obligates us to not only provide for the needs of other people, it also obligates us to provide them with the ability to provide for themselves.
Can this be provided in every circumstance? Clearly not. But it is important that we err on the side of Torah, not on the side of Sodom.
Rabbi Stanley Halpern