What was the sin of the people of Sodom? Dr. David Frankel, lecturer in Bible at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, explores the story of corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that God destroys in Parashat Vayera. He cites Pirkei Avot 5:10, a verse that describes the character of the average person as the essence of Sodom:
“What is yours is yours and what is mine is mine, is neither of the wicked nor the pious, it is the middle path. There are those that say that this is the character of Sodom.”
Frankel explains how this is not the ideal approach towards our fellow humans and that societies can flourish when we take responsibility and care for one another.
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Parashat Vayera tells us the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the famous cities that were so corrupt that God had to destroy them in their entirety, in spite of Abraham’s attempts to assuage God from performing this extreme action.
The question that is raised by many interpreters is what exactly was the sin or the character of the sin of the people of Sodom?
There are many stories of the horrible types of things that the people of Sodom did; terrible tortures and extreme, excruciating stories of evil. However, we find in a Mishna, a very unusual and different interpretation. In Pirkei Avot, the Mishnah talks about four types of people: one type of person says: what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours, and this is the character of the pious person, the other person, on the other extreme says, “what is mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.”
“What is yours is yours and what is mine is mine” is neither of the wicked nor the pious, it is the middle path. However, the Mishnah goes on to say “there are those that say that this is the character of Sodom.
The commentators on the Mishnah find this very strange. “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours,” this is the character of Sodom? That seems like the middle path. What is so bad about that?
The classical commentator, Bartenura says, “if you start off with the middle path you will eventually go down and down until you become Sodom-like in your evil.”
However, I would like to suggest a different interpretation, and that is that the people who say this is the character of Sodom are not disagreeing with the first interpretation, that it is the middle, regular path. That in itself is the character of Sodom.
The character of Sodom according to this interpretation, is not all evil. It is not some mythological horrible society. It is the regular society of people who say, “you take care of you, I’ll take care of me. I have no responsibility for you and you have no responsibilities for me.”
That is the essence of Sodom. The point is that if we don’t have enough care and concern in our hearts to take care of our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings in our society, that is what eventually leads to the collapse and destruction of our entire society.
Let us remember that Sodom is not some strange ancient evil, it is a real presence in our society today and we must be careful.
David Frankel has served as a senior Bibile lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies since 1992. He earned his PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include “The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School: and “The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel.” From 1991 to 1996, Rabbi Dr. Frankel was rabbi of Congregation Shevet Achim in Gilo, Jerusalem.