Had I Lived in S’dom, Would I Have Been Better?

“And the people of S’dom were sinners and they were evil.”[1]

Yes, S’domites were evil. To Hashem. To each other. And, they were most xenophobically evil to whichever outsiders dared visiting them.

And the examples of that xenophobia permeate our aggados.

We’re told that S’domites tortured visitors by fitting them into a unique bed of very specific length. How were they fitted? Tall guests were fitted by having their legs amputated. And short guests were fitted by being stretched on a rack.[2]

We’re told that visiting paupers died of hunger even though S’domites gave them charity. Why? Because that charity was worthless because S’dom’s merchants wouldn’t sell visiting paupers any food.[3]

And we’re told a heartrending story about a young woman[4] who defied S’dom’s rules by feeding a visiting pauper. As punishment, she was executed as follows: “They smeared her with honey and placed her on … city walls so that bees would devour her.”[5]

Most tellingly, descriptions about S’domite xenophobia aren’t just the stuff of aggadic discourse. They’re also the actual Torah text.

That’s the text that describes what happened when Lot violated S’dom’s rules by hosting guests. The S’domites, upon hearing of Lot’s hospitality, demanded that Lot’s guests be “sent out [of Lot’s house] so that we can sodomize them.”[6] And when Lot tried shielding his guests from this outrage, the other S’domites threatened him: “now we will do worse to you than we will do to them.”[7]

Why did S’domites act this way? From where did their xenophobia stem?

It may, interestingly enough, have stemmed from their geography.

S’dom was a rich city. S’dom, we’re told, was: “well-watered…like the garden of Hashem.”[8]

S’dom, though, was surrounded by the barren Judean desert.

And that desert was populated by poor nomads.

Those nomads certainly wanted to access S’dom’s resources.

S’domites, though, probably feared that their limited resources would be depleted by all those nomads.

That fear may have motivated S’domites to enact measures that prevented nomads from depleting S’doms’ resources.

Those measures were probably moderate at first – such measures are usually moderate at first. Nomads purchasing rights may have been restricted. As may have been their visitation rights.

But moderate restrictions probably wouldn’t have contained marauding nomads. S’domites would have responded by tightening the restrictions. And those restrictions may have further tightened until S’dom vortexed in our parsha’s nightmare.

S’domites, then, weren’t psychopaths. They were, rather, people who wanted to protect their oases.

And that may explain the following Midrash: “S’domites only sinned because [they wanted to protect the] … goodness that Hashem bequeathed to them”[9] – they were people who simply wanted to protect the goodness that their oasis afforded them.

We, then – if you think about it – are very much like S’domites.

Like S’domites, we have our oases. Our oases are our families, our communities and our businesses.

Like S’domites, our oases are sometimes challenged. Our challenges can threaten us as individuals. A difficult family member can create tension that can affect our marriage. A coworker can foment office politics that impede our career. And a competitor can use unethical means to capture market share.

And our challenges can threaten us as societies. One such challenge is the one posed by illegal immigration.

We worry that immigrants can deplete our resources. Or overrun our cities. Or impact on our lifestyles.

Like S’domites, we try to protect our oases from these challenges.

And like by S’dom our initial protections may be moderate.

We may, at first, distance ourselves from those who hurt us so that they won’t hurt us again.

We may, at first, try strengthening our businesses from different angles when they’re threatened from one angle.

We may try to tighten border controls.

But, like by S’dom, small protections may not work.

Small distances may not shield us from threats. And businesses won’t always be strengthened from different angles. And tight border controls aren’t fully effective.

We may, then, feel forced to increase our protective measures. But how much of an increase? Do we increase that protection by sundering all ties with those who challenge us? If those people are family, such sundering can create S’dom- like damage. Do we take a competing business to beis din? Beis din proceedings are complicated and create S’dom-like financial and social imbroglios. Do we punish immigrants’ children? Do we penalize their employers?

Yes, the wrong measures can turn our oases into S’doms.

Which means that as individuals and as societies we must live with the following, lingering question.

How do we protect ourselves without creating S’doms?

[1] Bereishis 13:13

[2] Sanhedrin 109b

[3] Ad loc.

[4] Pirkei de-Rebbi Eliezer 25

[5] Sanhedrin 109b

[6] Bereishis 19:5, see Rashi Ad loc.

[7] Bereishis 19:9

[8] Bereishis 13:10

[9] Sanhedrin 109a

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