Our Torah portion this week is Vayera. Perhaps unknowingly, we are very familiar with a “portion of this portion”. On the two days of Rosh Hashana when we read the stories of the birth of Isaac, Hagar, Abraham’s maidservant and their son, Ishmael getting sent from his home and finally, the Sacrifice of Isaac, we are reading from the Torah portion Vayera! Instead of again focusing on those stories and themes, let’s concentrate on the city of Sodom and the reason/s it was destroyed (Genesis chapter 18-19). The Torah states, (Genesis 13:13), “And the people of Sodom were exceedingly evil before God”. However, the Torah never explicitly identifies the sins and evils that the people committed.
I am sure that if you were asked, “Why was Sodom destroyed”, you would answer. The residents were all thieves, cheats, liars, murderers, rebellious against God, untrustworthy, etc. And, indeed, if those were your reactions, you would have been in good company with the Talmud, Midrash and many rabbinic commentators.
For example, one Midrash tells us that the residents were exceedingly rich but they never shared their wealth giving aid to the poor, the widow or orphan. The Midrash continues and tells of one resident who secretly aided a starving beggar. When discovered, the strict law was applied to her “crime” and she was severely punished. Another relates that they were so protective of their property that they would not even allow the birds to eat the fruit on trees in public places.
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Sages, Chapter 5, Mishnah 13) reads, “There are four characters of people: he who says, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours”. This is the average type: Some say: it is the character of Sodom. He who says, “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine”, is an ignoramus. He who says, “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours is a righteous person. He who says, “What is yours is mine and what is mine is mine” is wicked.
The first two of the four characters are not exceptional in any way. The third and forth characters are the polar opposites with the 3rd character being totally altruistic and the 4th heartless. Indeed, we would think that the residents of Sodom were typical of the 4th type – the selfish and uncaring.. But that is not what the Mishnah says! So, how do we explain the (unnamed) rabbi’s comment that the character of Sodom is “average”?
Travers Herford, a noted 20th century theologian writes, “It is remarkable that the name of Sodom should be applied to a type of conduct which is defined as that of the average man”.
Here, the “Some say” is a crucial insert into the saying. Is the “Some say” relating to the “average type” or is the “Some say” saying that this is anything but the “Average type”. It is possible that the “some say” is expressing the strong disagreement with the view that the “each for himself” was the rule followed by the average man. It is this rule that is the most self-centered and dangerous to our society. Each person, shut up within himself/herself is denying any relationship with his/her neighbor.
Let’s not even take the most extreme cases of violence but we do not have to look very far to see people walking down the street, during this Covid-19 time, without a mask. Isn’t that person saying in effect, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours”. In other words, you do what you want and I will do what I want. So what if you get infected! It’s not my responsibility to protect you!
This, I believe, is the message of our unnamed “some say”. He is loudly and clearly expressing that “all Israel is responsible one for the other”.
Let us pray that this lesson will be proclaimed, like liberty, “throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof”