“The men of Sodom surrounded the house, from young to old, the whole people from end to end.” Genesis 19:5
Two years ago, on the 18th of Cheshvan, 5778, a man of Sodom, armed to the teeth, entered the house at the corner of Wilkins and Shady Avenues, murdered 11 people, and wounded 6 others.
The real wickedness of Sodom was not what the fire-and-brimstone preachers call, in sexually coded words, “immorality,” “licentiousness,” or “debauchery.” It was that they “did not support the poor and destitute even though they had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility (Ezekiel 16:49).” It was in their hatred of outsiders that went beyond the inhospitable to the downright cruel. But most of all, it was in their treatment of those who dared to challenge the local custom of abusing the poor and the stranger.
In elementary school I learned the story of the bed of Sodom (Sanhedrin 109b). A traveler arriving in Sodom would be given a room with a bed, which was of a uniform size. However, travelers are not of uniform size. Tall travelers whose feet extended beyond the end of the bed would have them cut off; short travelers would be stretched on the rack to fit.
As an adult, I have learned the next story on that page of Talmud. A poor person arriving in Sodom would be met with a seeming flood of generosity; every person in town would give him one dinar. These denarii were marked, though, with the names of the individuals who had given them. The merchants in town were all in league; none would accept these marked denarii as payment for food or drink or lodging, and the traveler would soon starve to death in the streets of Sodom. When the inevitable end finally came, the Sodomites would descend on the body and each take back the dinar with their name on it.
Does this turn your stomach? Fill you with the urge to stand up for the traveler and give him a bed that he need not fit perfectly, or to feed the poor person without regard to what kind of money he was going to pay with? Me, too, but apparently that feeling did not arise in anyone in Sodom. The verse that heads this column says that the whole town surrounded Lot’s house. Genesis Rabbah 50:5 says this shows that no one protested or hesitated to join the mob. According to Rashi, this is the proof that, far from being ten righteous people in the city as Abraham had concluded with God would be enough to save them, there was not even a single righteous person among them.
Why was there not a righteous soul among them? Even the generation of the Flood had Noah; was Sodom worse than the antideluvians? Ellen Frankel, in her commentary The Five Books of Miriam: A Women’s Commentary on the Torah, explains why Sodom had no “Noah” through the story of Lot’s third daughter, Paltit.
Wait, what? Third daughter? Didn’t Lot only have two daughters? Yes, says Frankel, third daughter. She quotes a tradition that reads Genesis 19:15, when the angels tell Lot to flee Sodom with his “two remaining daughters,” and infers that there must have been one more daughter who already died. This daughter they call Paltit. What happened to Paltit? She offered hospitality to strangers, so the Sodomites burned her to death. Lest you think this was a one-off, Paltit had a friend who was of similar mind that gave food to a visitor. The Sodomites buried her in the ground up to her neck, covered her head in honey, and let bees sting her to death.
Is it any wonder, then, that not a single Sodomite stood against the mob? Anyone raised in that environment would quickly get the message that being a helper was suicide.
So when a man of Sodom saw an announcement online two years ago for a Refugee Shabbat service, he decided, the way only a man of Sodom would, to put a stop to it – to me, and to my friends and colleagues who help strangers. The insidious lies that cause even well-meaning people to hesitate in their helping (“Don’t give him money, he’ll use it for drugs;” “Let those refugees in, and one of them’s bound to be a terrorist, or a gang member;” “She’s making more money on welfare than she would if she got a job”) hadn’t done the job well enough, it seemed. He decided to take drastic, murderous action.
I was at that refugee Shabbat, October 20, 2018, the 11th of Cheshvan – coincidentally, the yahrzeit of someone else who dared, after a lifetime of fighting wars, to imagine a world with more peace and less suspicion. Yes, I was there – and only because Sodomites apparently can’t read calendars am I alive to write this. Eleven of my friends and neighbors are not. In taking their lives, this son of Sodom was trying to frighten others like us into accepting Sodom’s rules of hospitality: visitors are not welcome, the poor should not expect help in this rich nation and the correct response to please for aid is to respond with maximum violence and cruelty.
It didn’t work. Two years later, I continue to help people seek asylum, work toward citizenship, and establish stable lives in this country that put a torch-bearing colossus by its front gate and invited the tired and poor to come in, this country that has long been the best hope for people suffering around the world that they could go somewhere they wouldn’t suffer anymore – even if they had to risk their lives to get here.
This country has long fallen short of that promise to the tired and poor: from closing its doors to my people at the exact moment in the 1920s and 1930s when we most needed them open; to imprisoning a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans, many of them natural-born American citizens, at the exact same time that the Germans were exterminating the Jews who had been turned away from our shores in camps in Poland; to the immigration policies of administrations Democratic and Republican over the last half-century that included still more camps, family separations, and deportations.
But with all that, this country is not Sodom. For every blemish on our records, there are people throughout the country who do extend a hand to people who are here seeking religious freedom, economic opportunity, escape from political violence and torture, a haven from drug cartels, or a place where their sexual identity won’t get them executed. This city, in particular, is not Sodom. When a man of Sodom came to kill us, the authorities came to save us. Our city is home to a non-profit called “Hello, Neighbor,” intended to help new arrivals from far away find a real home here. We celebrate World Refugee Day in bold, public fashion (or bold, virtual fashion during the pandemic). And people of every color, income level, and yes, political persuasion pitch in to help.
It’s not up to me to eradicate the Sodomites from our midst – only to be sure never to become one. In honor of the memories of the 11 kedoshim that the modern man of Sodom murdered, including my mentor Jerry Rabinowitz and my colleague and friend Rich Gottfried, I am, to paraphrase a contemporary concept, going to keep on being an anti-Sodomite. Where Sodom extends the hand to no one, the anti-Sodom mentality is that every individual, and all of our leaders are tasked with ensuring that no one who needs a hand should go unnoticed, and when we do fail to notice, we have failed in our role on this earth. It’s a daring, dangerous position to stake out, when there are Sodomites out there – but in the end, they will thank us. We will be the reason that this town, this country, this world, will merit saving.
Yehi zichram baruch – May their memory be for a blessing.