One of the most famous episodes in the Torah Portion is that of the destruction of Sodom. The city of Sodom is unrivalled in its reputation for being totally evil. Whilst this is certainly true, it seems simplistic to say that the people of Sodom were simply sadistic people who derived pleasure from harming others. Rather, it seems that their behavior stemmed from an ideology that motivated them to act in the way that they did. In order to advance their beliefs, they instituted a whole body of law to enforce adherence to their cruel way of living. What was the nature of their ideology?
Rav Yitzchak Berkovits explains that the people of Sodom believed that doing chessed (kindness) for another person, constituted an act of base cruelty. By providing someone else with what he needs without him having to earn it, one is encouraging him to be dependent on other people for his livelihood. Since he would always depend on others, he would never be able become an independent and productive member of society. Accordingly, they instituted a whole set of laws and punishments that prevented chessed from destroying society. Furthermore, it seems that their punishments were not arbitrary ways of harming anyone who dared help others. Rather, they represented a warped sense of measure for measure punishments for the damage they perceived that the giver ‘inflicted’ on the ‘victim’ of his chessed.
For example, the gemara in Sanhedrin tells us that when a girl tried to give food to a poor person, they punished her by covering her with honey so that bees would eat the honey and sting her to death. It seems that they were conveying the message that by her doing chessed she was not helping the poor person, rather she was actually destroying him by causing him to be weak and dependent on others. Measure for measure, they punished her causing her to do ‘chessed’ with the bees by putting honey on her – the result of this ‘kindness’ was that she was destroyed. Since she had ‘destroyed’ through kindness, her punishment was to be destroyed herself by kindness.
The gemara continues with another punishment that one received for performing chessed. Anyone who would invite a stranger to a wedding would be punished by having all his clothes removed. What is the connection between the ‘crime’ and the punishment in this instance? The people of Sodom felt that doing chessed to someone constituted stripping them of their dignity by making them into a taker. Measure for measure they would strip him of his dignity by removing his clothes. It seems that God punished Sodom measure for measure for their cruel attitude towards chessed. Rashi tells us that, at first, gentle rain fell on Sodom, and only later it turned into sulfur and fire. The simple explanation for this is that God was giving them one last chance to repent. However, perhaps on a deeper level, they were punished by an act of kindness which turned into an act of destruction. That was exactly consonant with their reasoning for punishing others – that chessed is destructive. Measure for measure, they were destroyed by something that began as chessed and ended as destruction.
The nation of Sodom was so wicked that it would seem difficult to derive any lessons that could apply to our daily lives – it is obvious that their laws were extremely cruel and their attitude was wrong. However, one aspect of their belief has found support in the world in recent decades. The concept that helping people is damaging in that it prevents them from becoming independent. This attitude arose in response to the idea of ‘welfare’ whereby people without employment would receive significant financial support. As a result, many such people lost the incentive to look for work, and chose to remain dependent upon others. How does the Torah view this aspect of Sodom’s outlook?
It does seem that various aspects of Torah law and Torah thought also seem to emphasize the benefits of independence. The most well known example of this is found in Proverbs: “The one who hates gifts will live”. This means that the ideal way to live is to not rely on gifts or charity from other people. In this vein, the gemara says that a person who does not have enough money to spend anything extra to enhance Shabbos, should, nonetheless refrain from asking others for money, rather, he should treat his Shabbos like a regular week day. Given the great importance given to Kavod Shabbat (honoring the Shabbat) and Oneg Shabbat (enjoying Shabbat) in Jewish law, it is striking to note that it is more important to avoid relying on others than to accept charity and enhance one’s Shabbos. Based on these concepts and laws, how does the Torah view the aforementioned attitude that chessed weakens people?
The answer is that these Torah sources focus on how each individual should face his own personal situation. He should do his utmost to be self-sufficient and not rely on others for his livelihood. However, this attitude is limited to how one views himself – the way in which he should view others is very different. When it comes to the needs of his fellow he should put aside all judgment as to why they are in their needy situation, rather he should focus on how he can help them. Despite this emphasis on helping people who cannot help themselves, it is very important to note that since independence is a value in Judaism, the optimum way of helping a person when possible is by giving them the ability to become independent themselves, so that in the long-term they will not be reliant on others. Indeed, the Rambam writes that providing someone with the ability to find work so that he will be independent is the highest form of charity. However, there are many unfortunate situations in which people are unable to provide for themselves, and in such instances, we are commanded to do our utmost to help them. The mistake made by the people of Sodom was that they expected everyone should be able to succeed if they would only make the effort. This is plainly not the case, since many people are willing to try to become independent but external circumstances make it impossible. The people of Sodom teach us the wrong attitude towards chessed.