Sodom, City Of… Justice?
What Was The Real Sin Of Sodom And Gomorrah?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In Parshat Vayeira, Abraham’s nephew Lot is rescued by angels from the sinful city of Sodom, and after he and most of his family escape, the city is destroyed by heavenly fire. These seem to be the main plot points of the narrative. And yet, upon closer inspection, there actually seems to be a larger story being told, one that might make us question what we know about the real sin of Sodom. Woven into the account of the destruction of Sodom are a host of subtle references to a different story in the Bible – to, of all things, the Garden of Eden.
What do these two stories have to do with each other? Is there some common theme or lesson that runs through them both? In this video, Rabbi Fohrman explores the links between the stories, and suggests that Sodom might not have been the lawless place we usually imagine. Instead, it had a different problem – and understanding it holds the secret to how one can truly follow the path of God in building an ideal society.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman; welcome to Parshat Vayeira.
This week’s parsha contains a solution to a great mystery – a puzzle whose origins take us back to the Garden of Eden itself.
Biblical Connections to Sedom's Sin... in Eden?
As Adam and Eve were being banished from Eden, the verse tells us that God ensconced special angels at the entrance of the Garden. They were there to stand guard. But the cherubs weren’t just there to guard the Garden in general; their interest was in a very particular part of the Garden:
לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים
to guard the path of the tree of life.
So, not only does the Garden of Eden contain a mysterious Tree of Life but, we learn in this verse, it also, apparently, contains a pathway – a pathway that leads right to that special tree. What is the meaning of this pathway? Was it a yellow brick road or something? A gravel path adorned with an attractive sign: 'This way to the Tree of Life?’
A path seems like a way of gaining access to the thing that lies at the end. So does the mystery of how to access the Tree of Life lie, somehow, in this path?
So I think our parsha, Parshat Vayeira, seems to illuminate the nature of this elusive pathway. To see how, I want to go back to Eden for a minute, back to that verse we just looked at – the passage that describes mankind’s banishment from the Garden – and play one of my favorite games: Where else do we hear these words?
And the ways it’s going to work is, we’re going to look at these ‘banishment from Eden’ verses, and I’m going to highlight eight peculiarities in that text. As I do, I want you to ask yourself: where else in the Bible do we meet a story that contains all eight of these elements?
Ready or not – here we go.
Sending a Hand, Sending a Person
ויֹּ֣אמֶר ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֗ים הֵ֤ן הָֽאָדָם֙ הָיָה֙ כְּאַחַ֣ד מִמֶּ֔נּוּ לָדַ֖עַת ט֣וֹב וָרָ֑ע וְעַתָּ֣ה ׀ פֶּן־יִשְׁלַ֣ח יָד֗וֹ וְלָקַח֙ גַּ֚ם מֵעֵ֣ץ הַֽחַיִּ֔ים וְאָכַ֖ל וָחַ֥י לְעֹלָֽם
And the LORD God said, “Now mankind has become like one of us, knowing good and bad; and now, perhaps he will stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”
Ok, so right there is the first element I want you to pay attention to: the word shalach paired with the word yad; the stretching out of a person’s hand, in order to grab something.
Let’s find the next element. Back in our verses we’ve got next:
וַֽיְשַׁלְּחֵ֛הוּ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים מִגַּן־עֵ֑דֶן לַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֻקַּ֖ח מִשָּֽׁם׃
So the LORD God sent him from the garden of Eden, to work the land from which he was taken.
Someone being sent out of the place they are living. That’s element number two.
The next element adds more specificity to the place which the person is being sent from. In our original story that place was מִגַּן־עֵ֑דֶן, from the Garden of Eden. And, in the other story I’m thinking about – the place from which someone is sent – it just happens to be a garden, too. That’s element number 3. A garden.
Next in the Eden narrative we arrive at the verse we talked about just a minute ago:
וַיְגָ֖רֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים
He drove the man out, and stationed, east of the garden of Eden, these angels called cherubs…
Well, in the other story I’m thinking about, guess what? We also meet angels.
Angels: Element number 4.
So, back in Eden, just where were those angels? The verse says they were stationed מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן. Well, wouldn’t you know it? In that other story I’m thinking about, we also have that very same direction pointer: The word ‘mikedem,’ from the east.
That’s element number 5.
And, picking up again in our Eden story, those angels in the east, it turns out they were holding something: A flaming sword. Special, divine fire. Well, the story I’m thinking about also has special, divine fire in it, too.
Divine Flames: Element number 6.
Back to Eden, that flaming sword the angels were holding, the Torah tells us something unusual about it. The sword was מִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת. That word literally means ‘turned over’ or ‘reversed.’ The sword seems to have been turning around, somehow. And it just so happens that this word, mit’hapechet – that shows up in the other story I’m thinking about, too: That story, too, is about something that gets turned around, or turned over.
That’s element number 7: Mit’hapechet.
So folks, I’m going to hold back for a minute on the promised eighth element, for a minute, but we’ve got enough to go on here for the meantime.
Let’s get to the $64,000 question: What other story has all these elements? Shalach yad – sending out your hand to grab something – followed by just ‘shalach’ – sending someone out of their home. The word Mikedem. A garden. Angels. Fire. Mithapechet. What other story has got, not just some of these elements, but all of them?
Parallels to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible
Well… Welcome to this week’s parsha. The other story is the destruction of Sedom. And yeah, all eight elements.
Sending out a hand to grab something? Check. That’s the angels, they are in Sedom with Lot, and the mob approaches them, the mob is seeking to molest the guests Lot has brought in his house. At that moment, וַיִּשְׁלְח֤וּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁים֙ אֶת־יָדָ֔ם, the angels ‘send out their hand’ and grab Lot, they save his life.
Right after that, Lot gets ‘sent’ from the city: וַיִּזְכֹּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיְשַׁלַּ֤ח אֶת־לוֹט֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַהֲפֵכָ֔ה – God remembers Abraham and sends Lot from the destruction.
What about a garden? Well, back when Lot first settled in Sedom, the Torah just happens to mention that Sedom was kegan hashem, like the Garden of Eden itself, it was a very lush and fertile area with a river running through it.
Mikedem? Yup, got that too. When Lot chooses to settle in Sedom in the first place, we hear “vayisa Lot mikedem” – Lot travels from the East…
Next element: Angels? Well, we’ve got that: Of course, the angels come to destroy Sedom.
And special, divine fire? Oh yeah, Sedom has plenty of that. It is destroyed through divine fire, raining down from heaven.
What verb does the Torah use to describe that destruction? You might have guessed it: The same verb as that rotating sword back in Eden, mit’hapechet: וַיְשַׁלַּ֤ח אֶת־לוֹט֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַהֲפֵכָ֔ה. And Lot was sent out from the destruction. But the word for destruction is haphechah, literally: “turned-over-ness.”
Clues to Unravel the Meaning of Sedom's Sin
So… we’ve seen seven parallel elements thus far. We will get to the eighth in a moment, but I just want to stop here for a minute and ask you what you think the meaning is of that which we have seen thus far?
It certainly seems like the story of Adam’s banishment from Eden is getting paralleled in an eerie kind of way by this week’s story of the destruction of Sedom. But I want to ask why the Torah would do that? What are we meant to learn from it? That is a very good question. I want to hazard a guess.
Broadly speaking, how would you say we might summarize the similarity between these stories? Well, in both stories, we are looking at the loss of a garden. The first is a Divine Garden, God’s special place on earth. The second is a more mundane place – the fertile plain of the Jordan valley, the place where Sedom was situated – a paradisaical, lush setting, perfect for growing wonderful crops. In each story, the inhabitants commit some sort of sin, and lose access to the garden.
Okay so that’s the basic similarities between the stories. But beyond that there are some important contrasts between these two stories. In the first story, in Eden, Adam and Eve, they lose access to the garden – but neither they nor the garden is destroyed. In the Sedom story, though, God goes further. Both the inhabitants and the garden perish.
It seems that we are looking at a kind of progression here. The eating of the forbidden fruit, that was a first step along a dark and dangerous path – a path whose possible end state is Sedom.
In other words: If people don’t disabuse themselves of the evil values they expressed by reaching for that fruit, they risk the possibility that some time in the future, these evil values will give rise to an entire society that institutionalizes these values. If that would ever happen, the society itself would need to be destroyed.
What Was the Real Sin of Sodom and Gomorrah?
The people of Sedom, they weren’t just bad; they institutionalized evil, they built it into their system of law. The mob that converged on Lot’s door that sought to molest his guests, the text describes them as ‘young and old, from one part of society to the other.’ A strange demographic, wouldn’t you say?
It doesn’t seem like the mob was motivated by lust, they were motivated by civic duty. This was a mass, civic, protest on Lot’s lawn, because… Lot broke the rules.
Sedom, it was the original gated community – and, as the Ramban writes, the rules were: We keep guests out of our little, paradisiacal, place, by raping and robbing them. The Sedomites, they institutionalized evil.
Ultimately, there is no place in the world for a society like that. Both the garden and the inhabitants have got to go.
The Eighth Parallel Between Sedom and Eden
But if the parallels we have seen suggest the existence of a dark path, perhaps they also suggest the existence of another kind of path. A wonderful path. And this brings us straight to the eighth parallel between these stories.
You can see the eighth parallel if you keep just keep reading the Eden story – after we read of the angels, with their fire, and the sword that is mit’hapechet… after that, we hear one last thing. We hear about the purpose of the angels.
לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים׃
and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the path of the tree of life.
That same language, ‘lishmor derech’, appears in the Sedom story. Guess where?
The Path to Justice... and the True Sin of Sodom and Gomorrah
That expression appears right before God decides to destroy Sedom. At that particular moment in time, God chooses to consult Abraham about the Lord’s plans. And then, in a narrative aside, God tells us why He’s even bothering to consult Abraham about His plans.
God says to Himself:
הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה׃
“Shall I really hide from Abraham what I am about to do...
כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט
...for I have connected with [Abraham], so that he may instruct his children and his progeny after him, to keep the path of God – to do what is just and ..what is right.”
There it is: lishmor derech in the Sedom story. Keeping or guarding the path back to the Tree of Life somehow gets mirrored in Sedom by Abraham’s keeping the path of God … to do tzedek and mishpat: What is right and what is just.
Fascinating! Earlier, back in Parshat Bereishit, I talked to you about how cherubs, they appear twice in the Five Books of Moses, once, where they guard the original tree of life, and once more, when they guard the Ten Commandments – the Torah – which, interestingly enough, is described in Proverbs as a Tree of Life.
So, add it all up: these cherubs, they always end up guarding some sort of Tree of Life.
But if the Torah is a tree of life, we now see that this tree so to speak, comes with a path – a path you can walk on. What is that path? L’asot Tzedaka U’mishpat. It is the path of tzedek and mishpat. The right thing to do and the just thing to do.
The just thing to do and the right thing to do. How fascinating. We often think these two are synonyms. They kind of mean the same thing. But I want to suggest that they are actually not the same thing at all. They are actually in tension with each other.
There are two values here. They are the two building blocks of any virtuous society. Both values are crucial – Tzedek and Mishpat – and the tension between them defines exactly what kind of a society you’re really going to have.
Stand back and imagine the perfect society, and then ask yourself: Why is it good to live there? invariably, you will find yourself giving an answer, that will take you back to tzedek and mishpat and the balance between them...
Value number one is justice. The society is fair. Everyone gets a fair shake. There is a level playing field, and therefore, there is opportunity for all. Cheaters aren’t tolerated. Justice reigns supreme. That is ‘mishpat’, the Hebrew word for justice.
But rules alone don’t make a good society. You have to have something else too.
That brings you to value number two: the right thing to do, Tzedek. Someone is down on his luck and he’s homeless. It’s not the fair thing to do for me to reach out a hand to help him, but it is the right thing to do. To care for the less fortunate. To alleviate suffering when we can. To brighten the days of others. This is tzedek, the right thing to do – regardless of whether it happens to be fair.
Every society must balance these prime values: Tzedek and Mishpat.
The Biblical Lesson Behind the Sins of Sodom and Gomorrah
Sedom did have justice. It created its own set of rules – but those rules didn’t express care and regard for the other. So the society was devoid of tzedek. Hence its doom.
God tells Abraham that his nation, the one he’s going to create, in order to be successful, it is going to have to balance these two values. To attempt to create a society like this… is ultimately to walk on the path of the Tree of Life.
At some level, the Torah is God’s basic statement to man about these two values – Tzedek and Mishpat. But the path to that tree, that seems to be our dynamic conversation with God about those values.
Back in the garden, man resisted having a conversation with God; he was too busy hiding. But Abraham, he, at least, begins the conversation. And it is a conversation, maybe, that is kept up through the ages.
God gave us the Torah expressing Tzedek and Mishpat and we study that Torah, we wrestle with its meaning, we try to bring some sort of balance between tzedek and mishpat into our personal and communal lives. So that we can do, and express in our lives, tzedek and mishpat. When we do that, we too, walk the path of the tree of life.