Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ha’azinu-Shabbat Shuva 5768/ September 15, 2007

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Sodom and Gomorrah as Metaphor

 

Israel S. Adler, Atty.

 

Kefar Sava

 

The poem of Ha’azinu, which comprises the bulk of this week’s reading, gives a florid allegorical depiction of the condition of the Jewish people at various times in their history, and concludes with the words, “and cleanse the land of His people” [i.e. the land of the Israelites shall be cleansed”] (Deut. 32:43).

According to Rashi’s commentary, the entire poem, from beginning to end, refers to the people of Israel.   But, after concluding his commentary on the final verse of the poem, Rashi goes back and reinterprets the last section, beginning with verse 26 (“I might have reduced them to naught”), as referring to the other nations.   Such a change of view is something which does not appear anywhere else in all his commentary on the Torah.   He prefaces his second interpretation by saying:

It is interpreted differently in Sifre, where Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah disagree with each other.   Rabbi Judah interprets it as being entirely aimed at Israel, and Rabbi Nehemiah interprets it as being entirely against the other nations.  Rabbi Judah interprets the phrase, “I might have reduced them to naught,” as applying to Israel, as I did; and Rabbi Nehemiah interprets it as applying to the other nations.

Siftei Hakhamim, following Re’em (R. Eliyahu Mizrahi, a supercommentary on Rashi), notes that Rashi’s first interpretation is almost identical to that of Rabbi Judah in Sifre Deuteronomy (pisqa 323, s.v. ki), except for two points:   one, his interpretation of the words, “For they are a folk void of sense” (v. 28), which Rashi interprets as referring to idolaters, whereas Rabbi Judah applies these words to Israel; and the second, his interpretation of the words, “The vine for them is from Sodom” (v. 32), which Rashi interpreted as a statement--  “Their deeds are like those of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah”-- and Rabbi Judah interprets as a rhetorical question:  “Are you from the vine of Sodom?  Are you from the vineyards of Gomorrah? Behold, you are from the vineyards of the Holy One!”

After presenting the basic differences of opinion between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah, Rashi turns to reinterpreting the verses over which these rabbis disagreed, this time following Rabbi Nehemiah’s view.  He begins with an interpretation of verse 32:  “‘The vine for them is from Sodom’ – that of the other nations, ‘from the vineyards of Gomorrah’ – and they do not heed their great dependence on Me” (43).

In the first interpretation, according to Rabbi Judah, Rashi says:  “‘The vine for them is from Sodom’ – referring to what preceded.   I said in my heart, I will reduce them to naught, make their memory (that of Israel) cease among men, since their actions are like those of Sodom and Gomorrah.”   According to both of Rashi’s interpretations, the actions of the Israelites or of the other nations are like those of Sodom and Gomorrah.

If we examine the biblical references to Sodom and Gomorrah (sometimes Sodom alone, sometimes with the addition of Admah and Zeboiim, which were overturned along with it), we see that “Sodom and Gomorrah” is the dominant metaphor in the Bible for wickedness which ultimately incurs extreme punishment. Overturning Sodom and Gomorrah was, after all, only a local event, yet references to it are far more numerous than to other events of universal magnitude that pertained to far greater catastrophes. The flood, dispersal of the generation of the Tower of Babel, the plagues on Egypt, drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea, etc., are hardly ever mentioned again elsewhere in the Bible, and later references to them are either brief or mere intimations.  Why did Sodom and Gomorrah become a concept in various contexts of the Bible, the Midrash, and elsewhere?

This question becomes even more poignant in light of the fact that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were not given any warning, and no prophet or other person was sent to reprove them, in contrast to other cataclysmic events (except for the Tower of Babel, whose builders, as well, received no prior warning).  For example:  according to legend, Noah built his ark over the course of 120 years in order to arouse the curiosity of his fellow generation so that they ask why and perhaps repent from the wicked ways; Egypt was smitten by ten plagues, but only after Pharaoh had ignored Moses’ warnings; on the other hand, Nineveh was saved following Jonah’s prophecy and warning, which led the people of Nineveh to turn away from their evil ways.

Here we list several of the biblical references to Sodom and Gomorrah:

                 “Just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in His fierce anger” (Deut. 29:22).

                 “Had not the Lord … we should be like Sodom, another Gomorrah.  Hear the word of the Lord, you chieftains of Sodom; give ear to God’s instruction, you folk of Gomorrah!” (Is. 1:9-10).

                 “It shall be like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighbors” (Jer. 49:18).

                 “Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom … yet she did not support the poor and the needy (Ezek 16:49-50; similar references are repeated six more times in this chapter).

                 “The guilt of my poor people exceeded the iniquity of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment” (Lament. 4:6).

In the writings of the Sages we have the following:

                 “There are four character types among people:  those who say what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours – this is a middling character, and some say it is a character of Sodom  (Avot 5:10).

                 In Genesis Rabbah (Vilna ed., ch. 15, s.v.davar aher”):

There are ten things which the Holy One, blessed be He, is destined to make new in the future…  The fourth, that all cities which have been laid to ruin shall be rebuilt, and there will be no destroyed place in the world; even Sodom and Gomorrah will be built up in days to come, as it is said:   “Then your sister Sodom and her daughters shall return to their former state” (Ezek. 16:55).

Leviticus Rabbah ( Margaliyot ed., ch. 4, s.v.nefesh ki teheta”) reads:

“And, indeed, I have observed under the sun:   Alongside justice there is wickedness, alongside righteousness there is wickedness” (Eccles. 4:16)… this refers to the Sodomites.  Alongside justice there is wickedness: where judgment was exacted from the Sodomites – as the rabbis taught:  the people of Sodom have no part in the World to Come but they stand in judgment – “there is wickedness” – there “the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire” (Gen. 19:24), and the Divine Spirit cried out:  “Alongside justice there is wickedness” – in the place where I thought they would be righteous, and wrote that their land bring forth bread, there, instead it turned to fire.

Sodom and Gomorrah are the prototype of unacceptable behavior of many sorts, such as:

Illicit sexual relations, as recounted in the story of Sodom in Genesis 19.   The incident of the concubine from Gibeah (Judges 19) is compared to Sodom in its severity.  The severity of the punishments meted out in both stories points clearly to the view the bible takes of such blatant deviations from proper intimate relations.

Evil and wickedness--   The Midrash lays emphasis on the wickedness of the Sodomites and their king:   Rashi, following the Midrash, offers an interpretation of the significance of the names of the kings of Sodom and the surrounding towns (Gen. 14):  Bera – that he was evil (ra) to Heaven and evil to humans; Birsha – who rose by means of his wickedness (be-rish’o); Shinab – who hated (sanah) his Father ( av) in Heaven; Shemeber – who set his wings to fly (sam eber) and rebel against the Holy One, blessed be He.  Add to these the aggadot about the young woman who was condemned to be smeared with honey for giving bread to a poor person (Genesis Rabbah Va-Yera 50), the woman who gave a jar of flour to her hungry fellow woman and was condemned for this to be burned (Genesis Rabbah, ibid. 49), the unfortunate guests in Sodom who were forced into a “bed of Sodom” either to be stretched or shortened to fit (Sefer ha-Yashar, Va-Yera 58-62), and others.  The expression, “we use force when confronting the quality (middat) of Sodom” (Bava Batra 12b and many other references) means we come out vehemently against someone who, in his wickedness, is not willing to do a kind deed to others and let others have any benefit, even if doing so in no ways causes him any loss.

Pride--   After Abraham’s victory over the kings of the north, the king of Sodom, who himself had been defeated by the Four Kings, received him and notwithstanding his own inferior position dared to demand that Abraham return to him the people he had taken captive, even though according to the laws of warfare in the ancient world, the victor received both the people and their property.  The only explanation is that from all the beneficence that had been bestowed on them (before these cities were overturned, Gen. 13:10), the wealthy and sated people of Sodom had become proud beyond words.   The aggadah (which, incidentally, also mentions Pharaoh and Sennacherib) says:   “the Sodomites – for being haughty and saying:  we shall rise up and make the practice of hosting travelers pass into oblivion among us – for that they were sentenced to none other than fire” (Leviticus Rabbah, ch. 7).

Being ungrateful--  

Moab shall become like Sodom and the Ammonites like Gomorrah” (Zeph. 2:9) – why did Scripture punish those who were ungrateful?  Because it is a matter of denying the Holy One, blessed be He.  A person who denies the Holy One, blessed be He, is someone who does not acknowledge the good.  Such a person does not acknowledge the goodness of his fellow, and next he does not acknowledge the goodness of his Maker (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 7).

In conclusion, we see that it is not for naught that Sodom and Gomorrah figure in Ha’azinu and many other places in the Bible as representing the epitome of evil, corruption and all that is despicable in human behavior towards other human beings and towards the Lord.  Therefore, Moses sums up the evil deeds of Israel in the words, “The vine for them is from Sodom.”