Friday, September 19, 2008

The sin of Sodom

It has always been curious to me that the sin of Sodom is nearly universally understood as having to do with male-male sex, while in Jewish tradition, the sin of Sodom is almost completely unrelated to sex. In rabbinic tradition, as we see in today's section, the sin of Sodom is quite clearly stinginess towards the helpless, most especially the poor and the stranger.

The rather long passage (number 30 in both the Hebrew and English) enumerates the scenarios that the rabbis have in mind as the most heinous of sins. It begins with the description of the extraordinary wealth of S'dom: when a gardener would shake out some greens and rinse them in water, gold flakes would fall out; every kind of good fruit tree was full and green and heavy with fruit. Yet just a few lines later we read that when a stranger was invited to the house of a resident, that person -the resident- should be punished; when a poor person came to S'dom, every resident would give him a coin with their name inscribed on it, but no one would sell him food; when he died of hunger, each would come and take their coin back. If someone aided the poor person, the residents would kill her (in all three cases mentioned in the midrash here, it is young girls who take mercy on the hungry).

Not to get all political here, but something just strikes me very closely here about the current situation with immigration and labor in this country. We have so much here, and yet we punish those who come here to get some of what we have. For we, who are Jews, it is most shameful because we ourselves benefited from many of the things we are denying to recent immigrants: the right to organize in the workplace for better conditions.

While my first thought here is of the recent meat scandals, that's hardly the extent of it. Long before that came to our knowledge, there have been many Jews who have struggled against sharing what we have with newcomers. An example: a few years ago (2000), when Montgomery County, Maryland was trying to pass a living wage bill it was the Jewish non-profits who opposed it, saying that they couldn't afford to pay their workers a living wage. It took the action of an individual -Abe Pollin- to force the issue through and (with some compromises exempting certain groups) help the rest of the community do the right thing.

This election, there are so many different issues that it's hardly fair to focus on just one. But again, it is interesting to me how the attitude towards the workers of this country is one of contempt. We are perfectly content to allow those at the top to continue to expand the difference between themselves and everyone else. The pay inequality in this country is in itself a demonstration of the Sodomite tendency: I have, and it's mine, I "earned" [although that's also debatable] it, and I'm going to keep it.

At this time of year, heading into the Yamim Noraim (days of Awe - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) we as Jews should be thinking very carefully about where all our privilege really comes from. The Torah warns very explicitly in Deuteronomy that when we grow well off, we are in danger of forgetting exactly where our bounty came from

12. Lest when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, and lived there;
13. And when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied;
14. Then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery;
15. Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, where were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought you water out of the rock of flint;
16. Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers knew not, that he might humble you, and that he might test you, to do you good in the end;
17. And you say in your heart, My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.
(Deut. 8:12-17)

When we are satiated and things have come to us easily, we tend to think that we got it by our own power, instead of by God's grace. When that happens, we grasp it, and we don't want to share. It's odd how wealth often doesn't make us open-handed, but instead makes us want to grab onto our wealth even more tightly. This is oddly borne out by statistics, which show that the less money you have the more likely you are to give to others.

This time of year, we should reconsider where all that we have comes from. Americans like to think that what we have is ours earned by our maverick, independent selves; that we are all islands, able to get what we want by determination and hard work.

But while that's sometimes true, a lot of it is fortune, good or ill; it is the communities we live in, and how they support their own poor, and whether they can work together to raise themselves up that determines a great deal of our fortune. It is not our power and the might of our hands.

The wealth of the earth belongs to God. Leviticus 25:23 reminds us "the land is mine; you are but resident aliens under my authority." God is the only true owner, and all belongs to God, what is in the land, and what comes from it; everything is God's and our possession of land, or wealth, is at most temporary; in reality, ownership is no more than a conceit of ours.

The sin of S'dom, then, is not only about the abuse of strangers, but specifically that refusing one's wealth to others is actually a form of idolatry. It is denying God's power and greatness, a refusal to recognize one's true place in the order of the world. That is why the Yamim Noraim, the high holidays, begin with Rosh Hashanah, which most of us treat as a happy and joyous holiday -which it is- but it is also, most of us forget, the day on which nations are judged. It was once a holiday on which kings were crowned; for Jews it is the day in which we begin the cycle of reminding ourselves who the only King is; and our true place in the order of the world.

And that King is praised for not keeping wealth to Godself, but for "he opens his hand, and feeds all the living," as we read three times daily in the Ashrei prayer. We are obligated by Judaism to do as God does. To share what we have be granted with others is the least we can do.

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