Parashat Vayera: An ideology of evil

The story of Sodom reminds us that when pride takes hold of a society, evil follows.

'The worst is when a society proudly adopts evil as an ideology.' (photo credit: TNS)
'The worst is when a society proudly adopts evil as an ideology.'
(photo credit: TNS)
Two weeks ago, we read in parashat Noah about God’s promise not to bring another flood upon the world. “I will no longer smite all living things as I have done... and there will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.”
This week, we read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the severe punishment inflicted upon them – the erasure of these cities from the map. In light of the promise given after the flood, we understand that the actions of the people of Sodom were so terrible and evil that they warranted a punishment like the flood – but in a localized and limited manner.
What was so terrible about the behavior of the people of Sodom? Actually, it is not explicitly stated in the parasha. But we do read about two guests who arrived in Sodom toward evening and were hosted by Lot, Abraham’s nephew. When news of their arrival spread around town, all the inhabitants – “both young and old, the entire populace from every end [of the city]” – surrounded Lot’s house. They demanded that he send the guests out of the house, because they wanted to abuse them.
What motivated them? Why were they so opposed to hosting passersby? The Prophet Ezekiel answers these questions when he admonishes the people of Judea in the fifth century BCE for their sins, comparing them to the people of Sodom: “Behold this was the iniquity of Sodom your sister: pride, abundance of bread, and careless ease were hers and her daughters’, and she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they became haughty and did abomination before Me....” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
Pride was at the root of all the Sodomites’ evil deeds. This pride was expressed by their immoral lifestyle. The people of Sodom not only refrained from helping the poor or passersby, but they viewed such selfishness as an ideology. They enacted laws that forbade helping the poor, and they severely punished those whose conscience led them to have compassion for others, thus violating their evil decrees.
If we want an example of this Sodomite ideology, we do not have to go far. We still have living among us those who lived under the Nazi regime, one that made evil and arrogance into an ideology that manifested itself in both legislation and horrific acts. If Jew-hatred and the “Final Solution” stemmed from classic antisemitism, what led to the evil that brought about the chilling executions of disabled people? It is hard to fathom, but the story of Sodom makes us confront this phenomenon and reminds us of the depths to which man can sink if he nurtures his pride and arrogance, his evil inclinations and indifference.
In the Chapters of the Fathers, we find a disagreement among the Tannaim: “One who says: ‘Mine is mine, and yours is yours’ – this is a commonplace type, and some say this is a Sodom type of character” (Mishna, Chapters of the Fathers, Chap. 5).
How can this disagreement be so extreme? In one opinion, the attitude that “mine is mine and yours is yours” is commonplace, even classic; but in the opposing opinion, this attitude represents the utter evil of Sodom? Truthfully, both these opinions are accurate. When the attitude stems from human weakness, it is commonplace. So, though it is not an admirable one, it is not so terrible. But when this attitude becomes an ideology to live by, then it is considered an evil of Sodom that should not exist.
The darkest abyss into which humanity can fall is not when man capitulates to his inclinations, or when someone acts corruptly without conscience. Situations like those are reparable. The worst is when a society proudly adopts evil as an ideology. Situations like those are irreparable.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.