Sodom and Gomorrah are two of the most famous cities in the Bible, but Moses doesn’t even mention them until the very end of his life, as he describes in this week’s Torah portion what Israel will look like if the people violate God’s covenant (Deut. 29:23):
The whole land is brimstone and salt, a burning waste, unsown and unproductive, and no grass grows there, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, which the Lord overthrew in His anger and wrath.
So, like the weather we’ve had this past week, but smelling much worse.
A few chapters later, Moses describes this is in a more poetic way (32:32-33):
For their vine is from the vine of Sodom
and from the fields of Gomorrah;
their grapes are grapes of poison;
their clusters are bitter.
Their wine is the venom of dragons
and the cruel poison of cobras.
Interestingly, Moses traces all this cruelty, bitterness and poison to a specific individual or type, “a root bearing poisonous and caustic fruit…when he hears the words of this covenant, he blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall have peace, even though I proceed according to the capriciousness of my heart,’ so that the saturated destroys the thirsty” (29:18-19).
Saturated is how, of course, Sodom and its sister cities are first described (Gen. 13:10): “the valley of the Jordan, which was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar. This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.” The Jordan Valley is contrasted with “the land of Canaan,” famine-prone and always thirsting for rain. Metaphorically, the well-watered are the well-off, and Ezekiel (16:49-50) makes it clear that this is the root of Sodom’s poisonous cruelty:
This was the iniquity of your sister Sodom. Pride, abundance of bread, and careless ease was in her and in her daughters, but she would not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. They were haughty and did what is taboo before Me. Therefore I took them away when I saw it.
Yes, like that term taboo (toeva), sodomy (middat Sedom) is often misunderstood. Toeva is biblical, while middat Sedom only appears in rabbinical literature; nevertheless, some have an almost pathological need to associate these terms with sexual orientation and ignore their original context. Take what Maimonides (Laws of Neighbors 12:1) says about the talmudic definition of sodomy — in the context of partners dividing property:
If one of the partners said: “Give me my portion on this side so that it will be close to another field which I own, so that they will be one large field, ” his request is heeded, and we compel the other partner to grant him this privilege. For holding back in such a situation would be the character of a Sodomite.
When one withholds benefit from another out of pure caprice, that is sodomy. The mishnaic Ethics of the Fathers puts it this way (5:10):
There are four types of people: One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” is an ignoramus. One who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” — this is the intermediate characteristic; others say that this is the character of a Sodomite. One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” is a pious person. And one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” is wicked.
Perhaps the most shocking element of that dissection of human personality is not the reference to Sodom, but what “others” refer to it as: “the intermediate characteristic.” This is not a dissenting view, as the “others” agree as to the definition of the pious and wicked poles. Instead, this underscores that sodomy is not unusual; it is average, mundane, the default setting. The citizens of Sodom and its daughter cities fall far below this, as their vine produces venomous wine–but it all starts with a shockingly simple and so-so statement: “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” It is the meridian of mediocrity, telling the thirsty to keep off their well-watered lawn.
The “intermediate” status is one with special resonance this time of year, as the Talmud teaches (Rosh Hashana 16b):
R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Johanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on the New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of death; the doom of the intermediate is suspended from the New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death.
Mediocrity is no place to live; one inexorably moves towards one pole or the other. That is why we have the period of the Ten Days of Repentance: for the intermediate. For the average Sodomite. For us.