Vayera: Avraham and Sedom

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

It is very comfortable to think of Sedom as a city of thugs and perverts.  After all, is that not the reason why God decided to destroy it?  However, if one takes a closer look at the Torah's presentation of these events, one could reach almost the opposite conclusion - that Sedom was a city with culture, boasting a society not very different from our own.

In the following shiur we‘ll examine this possibility, as we analyze the contrast between Sedom and Avraham Avinu, while considering the very purpose for why God chose a special nation.


Our series on Sefer Bereishit has been following the theme of 'bechira', i.e. God's choice of Avraham Avinu to become the forefather of His special nation.  In last week's shiur, we discussed why God chose Avraham Avinu - i.e. to create a nation that will bring the Name of God and His message to all mankind.  However, we did not discuss the Torah's plan for how this nation can ultimately achieve that goal?   In this week's shiur, we attempt to answer this question as we study of the story of God's consultation with Avraham Avinu before He destroys Sedom.

To better appreciate how the Torah presents its message through these events; we begin our shiur by paying attention to the lack of any 'parshia' divisions in this entire narrative.

An Extra-Long 'Parshiya'

Using a Tanach Koren, follow the segment from the beginning of Parshat Vayera (18:1) until the conclusion of the story of Sedom at the end of chapter 19.   Note how this unit contains two unrelated topics:

  1. The news that Sarah will give birth to Yitzchak;
  2. The story of God's destruction of Sedom (& Lot's rescue).

Nonetheless, this entire narrative is recorded uninterrupted by any 'parshia' break.  By including both of these events in the same 'parshia', the Torah is already alluding to a thematic connection between these two events.

One could suggest that these events are recorded together for the simple reason that the same "malachim" [angels or messengers] are involved in both stories.  However, this itself raises the same question from a different angle, i.e. why are the same malachim who are sent to destroy Sedom - first instructed to inform Avraham about the forthcoming birth of Yitzchak?

[If we adopt Rashi's position (see 18:2) that each angel was assigned only one mission, then we would re-phrase our question: Why must all three travel together, or why doesn't each angel travel directly to fulfill his own mission?]

The Deeper 'Connection'

The answer to this question can be found (right where we would expect) at the transition point between these two stories.  Simply take a look the Torah's 'parenthetical' comment, inserted as Avraham escorts his guests on their way to Sedom.  As you study these pesukim, note how they explain why God must first consult Avraham before destroying Sedom:

"And God said: Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do?  For Avraham is to become a great nation [goy gadol], and through him, all other nations will be blessed [ve-nivrechu bo...] For I have singled him out in order that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right... - in order that I shall bring upon Avraham all that I have spoken about him." (See Breishit 18:17‑19)

Note how God's decision to consult with Avraham re: Sedom relates directly to the destiny that he has been charged to pass on to his son - Yitzchak.  But the thematic connection between these two topics goes much deeper.  Let's explain how and why.

Review these three pesukim once again, noting their textual and thematic parallels to the first three pesukim of Parshat Lech Lecha (see 12:1-3), where the Torah details God's original choice of Avraham Avinu:

"... ve-e'escha le-goy gadol - and I will make you a great nation - and bless you and you will be a blessing [to others] -"ve-nivrechu becha kol mishpechot ha-adama /  - and through you all the nations will be blessed" (see 12:13).

There can be no doubt that the Torah wishes to link these two passages!  Then, note how after explaining (in verse 18) why He has chosen Avraham Avinu, God explains how this will happen - for Avraham will teach his children (and those children their children, etc.) to do tzedaka u-mishpat!  (see 18:18-19)

In other words, Avraham is expected to initiate a family tradition - that will create a society characterized by acts of tzedaka & mishpat.  In this manner, they will truly serve as God's model nation.  [See also Devarim 4:5-8 for a very similar explanation.  See also Yeshayahu 42:5-6.]

Preventing Future Cities Like Sedom

This 'prelude' explains why the Torah records both stories in the same parshia, for the reason why God has promised a son to Avraham was in order to begin a nation that will hopefully one day be able to save societies such as Sedom, for they will serve as a 'model nation' from whom they can learn.

This can explain why the Torah records Avraham's petition that God spare the doomed city.  Avraham does not ask that God simply save the tzaddikim in Sedom; he begs instead that the entire city be saved - for the sake of those tzaddikim!  [See 18:26.] - Why?

Because - hopefully - those tzaddikim may one day influence the people in Sedom towards proper 'teshuva', just as the nation of Avraham is destined to lead all mankind in the direction of God.

This also explains when Avraham's petition ends.  After God agrees to save the city for the sake of 50 righteous men, Avraham continues to 'bargain' for the sake of 45, 40, 30, etc. - until he reaches ten (see 18:23-32).  He stops at ten, for there is little chance that such a small number would ever be able to exert a serious influence upon an entire community.

[This may relate to the concept of a 'minyan' - a minimum amount of people capable of making God's Name known.  Note as well the influence the ten 'spies' have on the entire nation in the incident of the 'meraglim', and how Chazal learn the number ten for a minyan from that incident!]

It is God's hope that, in the future, Avraham's nation would prevent the emergence of 'future Sedoms' - by creating a model society established on acts of tzedaka u-mishpat.  As Yitzchak is the son through whom this tradition will be transmitted, it is meaningful that the same angels assigned to destroy Sedom must first 'plant the seeds' for the prevention of future Sedom's.

Avraham makes this gallant effort to save Sedom, as this reflects the very purpose for which he has been chosen.  Despite his failure at this time, it will be this tradition that he must pass on to his son Yitzchak, and later to all future generations.

Avraham vs. Sedom

Even though at this point in the narrative, we are not yet aware of the precise sin of Sedom, this 'prelude' certainly suggests that it must relate in some manner to a lack of "tzedek u-mishpat".

Now, we will attempt to determine more precisely what their sin was, and how it represents the antithesis of everything for which Avraham stands.

Chapter 18 is not the first time in Sefer Breishit when Sedom is mentioned.  As we explained in our shiur on Parshat Lech Lecha, Lot's decision to leave Avraham and move to Sedom (13:1‑18) reflects his preference not to be dependent on God and to dissociate himself from his uncle.  It is in that context that we are told: "The men of Sedom were very wicked to God" (see 13:13).

Furthermore, after rescuing Lot from the 'four kings' (see chapter 14), Avraham refuses to keep any property belonging to Sedom which was recovered in that victory.  Although he rightfully deserves his 'fair share' of the spoils from the battle which he himself fought and won, Avraham Avinu, expressing his opposition to anything associated with Sedom, prefers to completely divorce himself from any resources originating from that city:

"Avram said to the King of Sedom: I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a shoe strap of what is yours, so you can not say: It is I who made Avram rich" (14:22‑23).

Based on this backdrop, it would be safe to assume that the sin of Sedom must relate in some manner to a lack of " tzedek u-mishpat".  Therefore, we must read that ensuing story (in chapter 19) in search of that theme.

A Good Host

Review the first three pesukim of chapter 19, noting how the Torah goes out of its way to describe how insistent Lot is to provide these two 'unknown travelers' with a place to stay:

"And the two malachim came to Sedom towards evening, and Lot was sitting by the gate of the city, as he saw them he approached them...  And he said - 'Please come stay at your servant's house, for lodging and washing up, then you can continue on your way in the morning'; but they declined.  But Lot very much insisted, so they came to his house; he gave them to drink and baked for them matzot [wafers] to eat."   (see 19:1-3).

Clearly, the Torah is emphasizing Lot's very own 'hachnasat orchim' [hospitality] as the opening theme of this narrative.

One could suggest that this same theme continues in the Torah's description of the city's reaction to Lot's harboring of his two guests:

"..They [his two guests] had not lain down yet when the townspeople, the men of Sedom, gathered outside his house - from young to old - all the people until the edge [of the city].  And they protested [outside his house] and shouted: 'Where are those men who came to visit you this evening?  Take them out of your house so we can know them [ve-nei'da'em]" (see 19:4-5).

Most of us are familiar with Rashi's interpretation, that the gathering consisted of merely a small group of the lowest social and ethical stratum of Sedom, who wanted to 'know them' in the Biblical sense (i.e. sodomy, based on 19:8 and 4:1).  However, recall that the Torah only states that the demonstrators wanted to 'know them', which is open to a wide range of interpretation.

No Guests Allowed

Ramban (and Rasag) advance a different interpretation, explaining that the entire town did indeed join in this protest (as the simple reading of this pasuk implies), for they had all gathered outside Lot's house, demanding to 'know' who these guests were.

Why are they protesting?  As Ramban explains so beautifully (see his commentary on 19:5), the people of  Sedom are protesting against Lot's hospitality to these strangers - as they would call for a mass protest anytime there was a fear that someone in their town was 'harboring' guests!

There appears to have been a strict law in Sedom: No guests allowed!  As Ramban explains, the Sodomites didn't want to ruin their exclusive [suburban] neighborhood.  Should Lot accommodate guests this evening, tomorrow night more guests may come, and by the end of the month, the city streets could be flooded with transients and beggars.  Should the 'word get out' that there is 'free lodging' in Sedom, their perfect 'country club' would be ruined.

[One could even find a warped ideology in this type of city policy.  For example, one could reason in a similar manner that no one should help the needy, for if everyone agreed not to take care of them, then they would ultimately learn to take care of themselves.]

Hence, should any citizen of Sedom bring home a guest ['chas ve-shalom'], the city's 'steering committee' would immediately call for a public protest.  [See also Sanhedrin 109a.]

There may have been mishpat, in Sedom - a standardized system of laws - but it was terribly warped.  Not to mention the fact that tzedaka had no place whatsoever in this bastion of amorality.

[Chazal remark in Pirkei Avot that the social norm of 'sheli sheli, shelcha shelcha' - what is mine is mine, what is yours is yours - is a 'custom of Sedom'.  The attribution of this social philosophy to Sedom reflects this same understanding (see Pirkei Avot 5:10 - 'arba midot ba-adam...').]

Tzedek U-Mishpat vs. Sedom

This interpretation explains why, throughout Nevi’im Acharonim, Sedom is associated with the absence of tzedek u-mishpat.  In fact, the three most famous of the Nevi’im Acharonim - Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, and Yechezkel - all of whom foresee and forewarn the destruction of the first bet ha-mikdash, compare the corrupt society in Israel to that of Sedom, and see therein the reason for their own forthcoming destruction.

As we will show, in every instance where Sedom is mentioned by the prophets, it is always in reference to a society lacking social justice, and never in reference to illicit behavior such as sodomy.

Let's start with a quote from Yechezkel in which he states explicitly that this was indeed the sin of Sedom (i.e. the very same point discussed above concerning "hachnasat orchim"):

"...Your younger sister was Sedom... Did you not walk in her ways and practice her abominations?  Why, you are more corrupt than they in all your ways... This was the sin of your sister Sedom - she had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity, yet she did not support the poor and the needy.  In her haughtiness, they sinned before Me, so I removed them, as you saw..." (see Yechezkel 16:46-50).

In Yeshayahu, the connection between the lack of tzedek u-mishpat and Sedom is even more explicit.  As we all recall from the Haftara of Shabbat Chazon, Yeshayahu compares Am Yisrael's behavior to that of Sedom & Amora:

"Listen to the word of God - you [who are like] officers of Sedom, pay attention to the teachings of our God - you [who are like] the people of Amora.  Why should I accept your many offerings... Instead, learn to do good, devote yourself to justice, aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow... How has the faithful city, once filled with mishpat tzedek, now become a city of murderers..." (Isaiah 1:10-21, see also 1:3-9!)

Recall also how Yeshayahu concludes this nevu’a:

"Tzion be-mishpat tipadeh, ve-shaveha bi-tzedaka - Zion will be redeemed by our doing "mishpat"; her repentance - through our performance of tzedaka.

In chapter five - Yeshayahu's famous 'mashal ha-kerem' [the parable of the vineyard] - the prophet reiterates God's initial hope and plan that Am Yisrael would perform tzedaka u-mishpat, and the punishment they deserve for doing exactly the opposite:

"va‑yikav le‑mishpat ‑ ve‑hiney mispach" [God had hoped to find justice, and found instead injustice], "li-tzedaka ‑ ve-hiney tze'aka."  (Yeshayahu 5:7) [to find "tzedaka," and instead found iniquity] [note amazing parallel with Breishit 18:19-21!] (See Isaiah 5:1-10, as well as 11:1-6.)

Perhaps the strongest expression of this theme is found in Yirmiyahu.  In his powerful charge to the House of David [whose lineage stems not only from Yehuda but also (& not by chance) from Ruth the Moabite, a descendant of Lot!], Yirmiyahu articulates God's precise expectation of the Jewish king:

"Hear the word of God, King of Judah, you who sit on the throne of David... Do mishpat u-tzedaka... do not wrong a stranger, an orphan, and the widow.." (Yirmiyahu 22:1‑5). [See also 21:11-12.]

Later, when Yirmiyahu contrasts the corrupt king Yehoyakim with his righteous father Yoshiyahu, he admonishes:

"... Your father (Yoshiyahu)... performed tzedaka u-mishpat, and that made him content.  He upheld the rights of the poor and needy - is this not what it means to know Me [la-da’at oti], God has said!  But you (Yehoyakim) - on your mind is only your ill-gotten gains..." (see 22:13-17)

Note that Yirmiyahu considers doing tzedaka & mishpat as the means by which we come to 'know God' ['la-da’at et Hashem' - (compare with Breishit 18:19, see also Yirmiyahu 9:23)]!

Finally, when Yirmiyahu speaks of the ideal king who will bring the redemption, he emphasizes this very same theme:

"A time is coming - Hashem declares - when I will raise up a true branch of David's line.  He shall reign as king and prosper, and he will perform mishpat and tzedaka in the land.  In his days, Yehuda shall be delivered and Israel shall dwell secure..." (23:5-6).  [See also Zechariah 7:9; 8:8, 16‑17, II Shmuel 8:15!]

This reason for the choice of the Kingdom of David corresponds with the underlying purpose behind God's choosing of Avraham Avinu.  As we have explained numerous times, God's designation of Avraham came not in reward for his exemplary behavior, but rather for a specific purpose: to establish a model nation - characterized by tzedek u‑mishpat - that will bring all mankind closer to God.  For this very same reason, God chooses a royal family to rule this nation - the House of David.  They too are chosen in order to teach the nation the ways of tzedaka u-mishpat.

But even without proper leadership, this charge remains our eternal goal, the responsibility of every individual.  To prove this point,  and to summarize this theme, we need only quote one last pasuk from Yirmiyahu (not by chance, the concluding pasuk of the Haftarah for Tisha Be-av):

"Thus says the Lord: Let not the chacham [wise man] glory in his wisdom; Let not the gibor [strong man] glory in his strength; Let not the ashir [rich man] glory in his riches. - But only in this should one glory: Let him be wise to know Me [haskel v-yado’a oti] -For I the Lord act in the land with chesed [kindness], mishpat, and tzedaka - for it is this that I desire, says the Lord." (see Yirmiyahu 9:22-23). [See also the Rambam's concluding remarks to the last chapter of Moreh Nevuchim!]

Once again we find that knowing God means emulating His ways, acting in accordance with the values of tzedek u-mishpat.  Should the entire nation act in this manner, our goal can be accomplished.

Thus, what appears at first to be simply a parenthetical statement by God (concerning Avraham) before destroying Sedom (in Breishit 18:19) unfolds as a primary theme throughout Tanach!

La-Da'at - The Key Word

It is not by chance that Yirmiyahu (in the above examples) uses the Hebrew word 'la-da’at' in the context of following a lifestyle of tzedek u-mishpat.  As we have already seen, the shoresh 'daled.ayin.heh' has been a key word throughout the narrative concerning Sedom.  First and foremost in a positive context: "ki yeda’tiv lema’an asher... la'asot tzedaka u-mishpat..." (18:19), but also in a negative context: 've-im lo eida’a' (see 18:21!).

However, this same word also surfaces in a rather ambiguous manner later on in the story.  As noted briefly earlier, Rashi and Ramban dispute the meaning of 've-neida otam' (see 19:5 - when the protesters demand that Lot surrender his guests).  From this pasuk alone, it is not at all clear what this phrase implies.

Rashi explains that the men of Sedom wanted to 'know them' in the Biblical sense (to 'sleep' with them 'mishkav zachar' - see 4:1 & Chizkuni on 19:5).  Ramban contends that they wanted to 'know' their identity in order to 'kick them out of town,' in accordance with their city ordinance prohibiting visitors.

Clearly, Ramban takes into consideration the pesukim from Yechezkel (which he cites explicitly, and most probably also took into account Yeshayahu chapter 1) that clearly identify Sedom's [primary] sin as their unwillingness to help the poor and needy.  In light of the direct contrast drawn between Avraham's devotion to tzedek u-mishpat and the character of Sedom (as in 18:17-19), we can readily understand why Ramban sought to interpret 've-neida otam' as relation to 'kicking out' unwanted guests.

Rashi (and many other commentators) argue that ve-neida otam implies mishkav zachar (sodomy - and hence its name!).  This opinion is based primarily on Lot's reaction to the protestors' request of offering his two daughters instead of his guests, and his comment, 'asher lo yad’u ish' (see 19:8 / note again the use of the same 'shoresh').

Had it not been for the pesukim in Yechezkel 16:48-50, and the prelude in Breishit 18:19, then Rashi's explanation seems to be the most logical.  However, when we examine the story a little more carefully, the story itself can support Ramban's approach as well.

The most obvious problem with Rashi's explanation (that the protestors are interested in sodomy) stems from their sheer number.  From 19:4 it appears that the group that gathers outside Lot's house includes the entire city, most likely hundreds of individuals, young and old!  If they are simply interested in sodomy, pardon the expression, how could two guests 'suffice'?

[Rashi, in light of this problem, offers a somewhat novel explanation for 19:4, that only the 'thugs of Sedom' ('anshei Sedom' implying a specific group and not the entire city) banged on Lot's door.  The Torah mentions the rest of the population - 'from young to old' - only in regard to the fact that they did not protest the gang's depraved behavior.  Rasag (on 19:4) disagrees, proving from 19:11 that both young and old had gathered outside Lot's house.]

Ramban combines both explanations, criticizing Lot's own character for foolishly offering his two daughters in exchange for the protection of his guests.  However, this explanation of 19:8 is also quite difficult, for how (and why) should this offer appease this mass crowd who claim (according to Ramban) to be interested only in expelling unwanted guests!

One could suggest an explanation for Lot's remarks that solves all of the above questions, leaving Lot's character untainted, while keeping the focus of these events entirely on the lack of tzedek u-mishpat in Sedom.

Giving Mussar

Lot's statement must be understood in light of the crowd's reaction.  Note how the crowd responds to Lot's 'offer':

"And they said to him: Go away [gesh hal'ah - move a far distance, you have just (recently) come to dwell (in our city) and now you judge us!  Now we will deal with you worse than with them..." (see 19:9).

What did Lot say that prompted such a severe reaction?  If he simply had offered his daughters, why couldn't they just say: No, we prefer the men?  Instead, they threaten to be more evil with Lot than with his guests.  Does this mean that they want to 'sleep' with Lot as well?

One could suggest that when Lot pleads: "My brothers, don't do such evil [to my guests], here are my two daughters..." (see 19:6); he is not seriously offering his daughters at all.  Rather, he makes mention of them as part of a vehement condemnation of the people.  In a sarcastic manner, Lot is telling the crowd that he'd rather give over his daughters than his guests!  He has no intention whatsoever of giving them over to a mass mob.

[Note how Reuven's statement to Yaakov that he would kill his own two sons... etc. (see Breishit 42:37) could be understood in a similar manner; i.e. not that he would do that, but to emphasize his seriousness to his father.]

Furthermore, as we mentioned above, how could two women 'appease' such a large crowd!   Instead, it would make more sense to explain that Lot is making this harsh statement as a form of rebuke, emphasizing how important it is that they allow him to keep guests.  It's as if he said, "I'd sooner give you my daughters than my two guests."

[Note as well that Lot does not bring his daughters with him when he makes this so-called 'offer.'  In fact, he actually closes the door behind him (see 19:6) afterward, he leaves to negotiate with the rioters.  Had Lot really wanted to 'appease' them with his daughters, he should have taken them outside with him!  Also, from the conclusion of the story, it seems that his two daughters were married (but their husbands didn't come along)]- v'akmal.]

This explains why the crowd becomes so angered by Lot's remarks.  They are taken aback by his harsh rebuke of their 'no guest' policy.

Based on this interpretation [that Lot is 'giving them mussar' and not 'making a deal'], we can better understand the mob's response to Lot's offer (19:6-8).  They neither accept nor reject Lot's proposal.  Instead, they express their anger with Lot's rebuke:

"One has just come to live by us - va-yishpot shafot - and now he is judging us; now we will deal more harshly with you than [we planned to deal] with them!" (see 19:8). [In other words: they seem to be saying: 'HEY, you're just a newcomer here in our town, and you already think you can tell us what to do!  No way - we're gonna kick you out of town now, together with your lousy guests!']

[This would also explain what they mean by - "Now we will do more evil to you than to them" (see 19:9).  In other words, before we only wanted to expel you guests from town, now we are going to expel you and your family as well!]

What do people mean by "you are judging us"?  Apparently, there is something in Lot's response that suggests a type of character judgment - but is it only his request that they 'not be so mean' (see 19:7)?

One could suggest that they consider Lot's sarcastic offer of his daughters instead of his guests as a moral judgment of their 'no-guest' policy; a reprehension of their unethical social system.  If so, then this is exactly to what 'va-yishpot shafot' refers to.  They are angered for Lot has 'judged' their character.  No one likes being told what to do, especially by 'newcomers'; hence their angry and threatening reaction to Lot's remarks.

This interpretation of 'shafot' in relation to rebuke is found many other times in Tanach.  See for example I Shmuel 7:6, where Shmuel (at Mitzpa) rebukes the entire nation for their behavior.  We find a similar use of the verb 'lishpot' in I Shmuel 12:7, when Shmuel rebukes the nation for not appreciating God's salvation when asking for a king to lead them instead!  [See also Yirmiyahu 1:16, and its context.]

If this interpretation is correct, then it may be that Sedom's sin involved only social justice (as Yechezkel 16:48-49 implies), and had nothing to do with 'sodomy' at all!  And for this reason alone, God found it necessary to destroy that city.

Difficult as it may be to understand, this conclusion should be seriously considered as we set our own values and determine our lifestyle and community priorities.