Rabbi said: "There was no city more wicked than Sodom, so when any person was evil he was called a Sodomite" (Genesis Rabbah 41:7).
Sodom was destroyed not for the "crime" of homosexuality but rather for abusing the poor and the stranger. In what ways is our world today in danger of following in Sodom's footsteps? And how do we ensure that we sustain a critical mass of righteous people in our midst?
The Crimes of Sodom
The city sparkled, a gemstone glittering in the pristine countryside. The surrounding fields were verdant, as bountiful as the Garden of Eden itself (Gen. 13:10). The inhabitants of the city were blessed with abundance, with “plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility” (Ezekiel 16:49). Their wealth was enormous … matched only by their greed.
They said to one another, “Here, bread comes forth from the earth, and gold litters the ground like dust. What need have we for foreigners? Surely they come only to divest us from our property!” They caused the Torah of the traveler to be forgotten and they became despisers of charity (Ramban on Gen. 19:5).
When a poor traveler would come to the city, its denizens would shower him with donations. Each inhabitant would give him a coin, inscribed with his own name, until the foreigner possessed a fortune. And then, every shop and salesman would refuse to sell to him food until he starved to death on the street. Whereupon each one would reclaim his coin, marked with his name, until the next stranger should
In time, the courts became the strongest weapon of those who would steal from others. To take only one of a long list of examples, they instituted a new law governing the nearby river: All who cross by ferry must pay four dinars; those who swim across on their own owe twice as much. Once there came a launderer who forded the river by himself; “Pay us eight dinars,” the people of the town demanded. “But,” he protested, “I have crossed the water by my own power.” So they beat him until he bled. When he sought recourse at the courts, they said to him, “First you must pay your assailants a fee, for they have worked hard to spill your blood. And then, for fording the river, you must pay eight dinars.”
One final tale. There was one young resident who did not act like the rest. She would hide bread in her water pitcher, sharing it with the poor in secret. The matter was found out, and her neighbors seized her at once. They smeared her with honey and positioned her on the city wall until the hornets came and devoured her. And there are those who say: They burned her alive (Genesis Rabbah 48:6).
As she screamed, her voice reached the farthest realms of heaven. And God said, “The outrage of Sodom is so great and their sin so grave! I will go down and see the outcry that has reached me” (Gen. 18:20-21).
These are the crimes of S’dom—Sodom—a city consumed with avarice and dedicated to the abuse of foreigners. Jewish interpretation has always been clear—from the text of Genesis (cf. 13:10-13) to the prophet Ezekiel (49:48-50) to rabbinic commentary to the modern age—that Sodom was guilty of greed and the perversion of justice. A rabbi so famous he’s known only as Rabbi once said, “There was no city more wicked than Sodom, so when any person was evil he was called a Sodomite” (Genesis Rabbah 41:7).
Now, if you consult a source like christianity.com, you will read this false claim: “One of the most prevalent sins in Sodom was the homosexuality of the men, engaging in sexual relations with the other men and boys.” Now, it is true that the inhabitants of Sodom attempted to rape innocent visitors to their town (Gen. 19:4), but the crime here was rape, not homosexuality. Even Jesus himself is said to have instructed his disciples to seek out hospitable hosts in the towns they would visit: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (Matthew 10:14-15). In other words, the sins of Sodom were and remain the sins of violence, corruption, and greed.
As Rabbi says, we should always be on the lookout for the Sodomites of our day, those people who sacrifice the stranger on the altar of their own self-interest. Indeed, we may be tempted to look around us to discover whether we ourselves are living in a modern-day Sodom, a society based on exploitation and injustice. It would be easy to list the sins of our community that cast us in the image of Sodom, decrying policies that abuse immigrants and denouncing the politicians who devise them.
But it would be more truthful to note that this general state of affairs, that America writ large and even our own small corner of it, has always failed to live up to the highest standards of welcome and support. As Rabbi Weiss has been teaching in his class on the 1619 project, our entire nation continues to bear the legacy of slavery, and as we know well from our own family stories, America has time and again turned its back on those who would seek refuge on our shores. The particular battles of today are urgent, and as we struggle to overcome the allures of wealth and aspirations of greatness, we must work as well to reform the very soul of our society so that, regardless of the political issues of the day, our community is committed ever more deeply to audacious hospitality and universal recognition of the divine spark in every human being.
Our goals, therefore, are long-term, as we seek to repair our broken world. But victory lies not in the distance but in each step of progress, each achievement for the virtues of decency and well-being. Our sights are set on the future while our actions focus on the needs of the present moment.
The urgency of our time has focused the attention of our Reform Jewish movement on the injustices perpetrated in our system of immigration and, in particular, on our response to those who seek asylum in the United States. On a recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, saw conditions that reminded her of Sodom. Rabbi Weiss, as you know, participated in a similar trip and can share his own stories as well. Our tradition demands our response, that we heed God’s call to love the stranger as ourselves and to treat the immigrant with justice.
But truth be told, neither Rabbi Jacobs nor Rabbi Weiss saw only abuse. As Rabbi Jacobs writes:
We also saw good people standing on the side of righteousness. When Abraham pleaded with God to save Sodom if only 10 righteous people could be found there, the city failed even to meet this low threshold. But in El Paso, we met immigration attorneys working day and night to help their clients gain refuge, volunteers feeding and housing those who made it across the border, elected officials working to change laws to protect immigrants and asylum seekers, and ordinary El Paso residents refusing to give in to hatred.
In other words, we don’t live in Sodom, as tempting as it can be to say we do. Because Sodom was beyond redemption, overrun by people of all ages bent only on doing evil. Even in our darkest moments, hope is not lost. Good people doing good work bring inspiration that conditions can improve, values can evolve, and our society can get ever closer to the ideals of liberty and justice for all.
May this be our work, all of us together and each of us alone: to make the memory of Sodom ever more distant, a relic of a time long past, that all will say of the place we live, “This is a place where I belong and where I can lie down my head in peace.”
 Unless otherwise noted, texts come from Sanhedrin 109a-b.
 “The Moral Voice We Need on the Border,” http://action.truah.org/content_item/truah-email?email_blast_KEY=1432791.
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