Passover in Sodom: Which Neighbors Do We Love?

We typically don’t read Genesis 19 looking for connections to the Exodus from Egypt. But it turns out there are many: Lot bakes matzah for his guests (and Rashi comments that he does so because it was Pesach); chaos and violence swirl just beyond the threshold of the house all night, while inside Lot’s family preserves a modicum of safety; by morning, Lot and family are taken out from Sodom, just as the Israelites are taken out from Egypt.

The connections aren’t only on the thematic level. As Yoel bin Nun and David Silber have both written, there are clear linguistic connections between the destruction of Sodom and the Exodus story. Read Genesis 19 in Hebrew and you find, in addition to matzah, words like: “l’hitmahmeah” (to tarry); “latzeit” or “l’hotzi” (to go out or take out); “mashchit” (destroyer); and many others that find prominent echoes in the story of the Isaelites’ going out from Egypt.

What might the Torah suggest to us in drawing this parallel?

In rabbinic literature, Sodom is notorious as a place of nasty people. In particular, the people of Sodom are said to have harbored a profound sense of xenophobia, to the point that they aimed to deter strangers from visiting their town altogether. This statement has roots in the Biblical narrative. As the townspeople pressure Lot on the threshold of his house, they say in verse 9, “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge!” (The Hebrew here is yet another instance of creating strong connections with the Exodus. See Ex. 2:14, where two fighting Israelites say to Moses, “Who made you judge and ruler over us?”)

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot translates Sodom’s xenophobia into powerful ethical terms: “There are four temperaments among people: The one who says ‘what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours’—that’s an average temperament. And there are those who say that is the temperament of Sodom.” While the Mishnah goes on to teach that the one who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine—this is a wicked temperament,” it is the average person who exercises a live and let live approach, that is potentially a citizen of Sodom.

The Rabbis were perhaps anticipating Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” the poetic story of two neighbors going out to build a wall between their properties. After his neighbor explains that “Good fences make good neighbors,” the narrator says:

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

The neighbor’s phrase, “Good fences make good neighbors,” has taken on a life of its own in direct opposition to Frost’s original meaning. And I would suggest that that meaning is the same as our Mishnah: Perhaps good fences make good neighbors. But the seeds of distrust and hatred lie within the mindset of “live and let live” just as much.

There’s a bit of mischief in the springtime for Jews as well. On Seder night we play games, and play-act our way into the story of the Exodus. But this linkage with the story of Lot and Sodom raises another aspect for us to consider, namely how we relate with our neighbors.

Pesach is our great season of Hesed, of generosity and open-heartedness. “Let all who are hungry come and eat:” We go out of our way to be inclusive at our seder. We provide maot chittim, food for our brothers and sisters who need financial help to make Pesach. The Torah itself relates that neighbors came together to eat the Pesach meal, forming microcommunities through the Seder ritual. At Pesach we aim to truly open our hearts to our fellow Jews.

But the story of Lot and Sodom, and its linkage with Pesach, calls us to go a step further, and examine our relationships with our non-Jewish neighbors. What kind of fences do we erect between us? What kind of trust do we build? Does our generosity and open-heartedness extend to our fellow citizens who don’t share our religious heritage, or do we practice the kind of “live-and-let-liveism” that, some say, was the temperament of the people of Sodom?

This isn’t only a question for Jews who live outside of Israel. It’s a question for Israeli Jews too. None of us lives in a hermetically sealed environment. All of us share communities and countries with a diverse array of people whom we label foreigners and strangers. And as the Torah powerfully reminds us now and always: “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

And, we might add, because we don’t want to go the way of the people of Sodom.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is Dean of Students in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and Founder of Ask Big Questions, a project of Hillel International.
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