The Saudi Crown Prince and the King of Sodom

Many of us have been reading about the dilemma that the US administration faces about how to deal with Saudi Arabia regarding the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  If, indeed, the Crown Prince was behind or had knowledge of the plot to murder Mr. Khashoggi, how will the US administration balance its own interests of using the Saudis in its confrontation against Iran and of strengthening the commercial relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia with the need to condemn the utter disregard and violation of basic human rights in the strongest possible terms?  The Torah may not address the complexity of this particular situation, but the Torah has what to say about aligning ourselves with those whose values are radically different than our own.

As an example, in last week’s Parsha, when the king of Sodom asked Avraham Avinu for the people of Sodom and offered Avram Avinu the property of Sodom, our Patriarch refused even the property.  Avraham Avinu swore by the name of God “im mi’chut v’ad sroch na’al v’lo tomar ani he’esharti et Avram,” that he would not even take so much as a thread or a sandal strap so that the king doesn’t say that he enriched our Patriarch.  I wonder why Avraham is concerned what the king will say, and specifically what this king will say.  After all, earlier in the Parsha, Pharaoh honored Avraham with gifts when he took Sarah for himself and Avraham had no problem taking these gifts.

Perhaps we can suggest the following.  Pharaoh lived far away from Avraham, in Egypt, but the king of Sodom lived in the land promised to Avraham.  They were neighbors and in financially supporting Avraham, they may have effectively formed some sort of alliance.  But this was an alliance that Avraham could not countenance.  The prophet Yechezkel decries Sodom because they are wealthy, but they don’t help the poor out of arrogance.  Our Sages in Pirkei Avot assert that the philosophy of Sodom was “sheli sheli shelach shelach,” or “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.”  I’m going to stay away from your property, but make sure to stay away from my property.

We could imagine that the people of Sodom were completely at ease with their philosophy of creating a perfected, high-class society.  We could imagine the king of Sodom wishing to form an alliance with the heroic prince of God-warrior and savior.  However, Avraham, who lives a life of righteousness and justice, cannot countenance the perception of an alliance with this debased philosophy.  “V’lo tomar ani he’esharti et Avram” is a proclamation that Avraham cannot associate with this city and these people at all, even if the financial costs are high.

Far be it from me to claim expertise on how the US administration should clarify its values while protecting its national and global interests, but aligning ourselves with those who represent the antithesis of our values was of grave concern to our Patriarch and should be of grave concern to us.  In our day to day lives, we may often be confronted with financial opportunity that will compromise our integrity.  And the temptation is very great and the rules are sometimes very unclear as to when we are compromising our integrity and when we are not compromising our integrity in this area.  When it comes to temptation in the area of forbidden sexual relationships, our Sages have instituted rulings like the prohibitions of yichud and negiah, secluding ourselves with, or affectionately touching, someone from the opposite gender, to help protect us from succumbing to our temptations in this area.  In contrast, similar clear boundaries often do not exist in the halachic financial world.  But we have to try.  We have to ask more questions and tread more lightly when engaging in a behavior that is questionable in this area.  I receive a lot of questions in halacha in my community, but most are in the areas of kashrut, Shabbat and taharat ha’mishpacha.  We need to ask more questions in financial matters.  And certainly, we must work hard to ensure that we follow the path of Avraham Avinu and stay away from people like the king of Sodom, “V’lo tomar ani he’esharti et Avram.”

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.