Why the Sodomites would not have taken part in Mitzvah Day

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 19 November 2019

This Sunday marks the third World Day of the Poor. The World Day of the Poor is a Roman Catholic observance, marked on the 33rd Sunday of the Liturgical calendar. It was established by Pope Francis at the end of the last jubilee to recognise the new forms of bondage that enslave millions, people who have been forced out of their homes, those forced into extreme poverty by political agenda or personal trauma. In Vatican City it is marked by a special Mass, followed by a free lunch given out in several venues throughout the city. In the week leading up to the day, specialised medical services are offered free of charge at a mobile clinic for those who cannot afford the cost of medical bills. The day is observed in other countries including India, Poland and Canada, with both religious observances, free meals and other initiatives such as food collections and toiletry donations.

The day is not one of monetary gain for those in need but was devised to show support for others not with words, but with actions. The day gives people a chance to meet their neighbours, to share a hot meal, and to potentially meet Pope Francis himself. In a message from the Vatican, Pope Francis stated, “We can build any number of walls and close our doors in the vain effort to feel secure in our wealth, at the expense of those left outside. It will not be that way forever,” Pope Francis wrote, “the poor are not statistics to cite when boasting of our works and projects,” but persons “to be encountered.”

It just so happens that the World Day of the Poor falls this year on Mitzvah Day and on the same weekend as Children in Need, two other dates in our calendar that prioritise giving and outreach, and place importance on acting for the good of others. Mitzvah day is a moment for Jewish communities give their time, not their money, to make a difference to the world around them. It brings together people of all faiths and backgrounds to volunteer side by side in acts of Tikkun Olam. Mitzvah day has been in action for over 10 years, set up by our very own Alyth member, Laura Marks.

This weekend that is all about giving and outreach, that is centred on the notion of looking out for the other, regardless of their faith, ethnicity or social background, reminds us of our purpose here on earth. The events of this weekend are about more than just charity. They are about recognition of how fortunate we are. They are about encouraging us to be generous not only with our materials but also with our personal resource, our time and our compassion. They are about Gemilut Chasadim, acts of lovingkindness, one of the pillars on which our world stands. According to Talmud, whereas charity can be performed only with one’s money and only for the poor, gemilut chasidim requires one’s body, time or money, and is for everyone, living or dead.

Ultimately these events trigger a process of thinking of the other, and of giving what little we are able, and helping us to become better versions of ourselves. They remind us of our ability to look outward, a trait that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed in this week’s parasha, were lacking. The Sages name the sin of the Sodomites as disdain for the poor. Sodom was a city in which they legislated against charity, a city with selfishness at its roots. Home to the wealthiest people in the world, people who were fat with their pick of plenty, these people were not willing to share with the other, or to give their time to those in need. Instead they cut the branches off fruit trees so that birds would not steal their bounty, they were greedy, perhaps made this way by their wealth and lifestyles of excess.

Our Sages recount stories throughout Midrash and Talmud as to the lengths the residents of Sodom would take to protect their wealth and punish acts of charity. They tell of games played with beggars on the street, where they would provide money and not food, so they could collect it back when the person died. They tell of violence enacted on visitors under the guise of offering a bed to a weary traveller. Midrash Rabbah tells of two girls going to draw water from the well. One girl was very pale as her family had no more food left. The other girl filled her pitcher with flour and they swapped so that she could eat.

When the Sodomites discovered this, they took the girl and burnt her.

In the vivid imagination of our Rabbis, the final straw comes in the story of a maiden who secretly carried bread to a poor person in the street, hidden in her water pitcher. After three days the man had not died and the residents began to suspect the maiden. They discovered her actions and covered her with honey, placed her atop the city walls and left her until the bees came and ate her. It was her cry that alerted God to the actions of the Sodomites and triggered the angelic visit we read about today, which lead to the eventual destruction of the city.

For us these tales are just the warped writings of Sages, vivid tales intricately woven to teach us a lesson. We have no real knowledge of what the true actions of the Sodomites were, our Torah text is vague, just stating that their crime is grave.  Yet the rabbis seems so certain that these are the sins of the Sodomites that in Pirkei Avot, when exploring the different types of people present in our world they write: There are those that say “what’s mine is mine, and yours is yours”: this person is a Sodomite. The Sodomite is selfish, wishing only to protect their lot, not concerning themselves with the other.

Why is it that the rabbis decide to project a sin of selfishness and financial gain on the Sodomites?

It is a sin we can relate to, one that we understand, for in reality, all of us have a part of the Sodomite within us. Human beings are inherently selfish. Our need to provide for ourselves is not always something to be frowned upon, but something that helps us to preserve who we are, that enables us to provide the lives we want to live for our ourselves and our families. It is the Sodomite in us that means we have shelter, food and clean water at our disposal. It is also this that enables us to have luxuries, material things that bring us joy.

But when we live in affluence, we must be careful. For when we have affluence without social concern, we may become self-destructive. The urge for monetary and material gain can take over our lives, beginning when we have less and desire more, and increasing when we have more, but are not satisfied. By naming the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as those of greed and selfishness, the rabbis help us to realise those behaviours have terrible consequences for all who adopt them alone, without also balance and care for the other.

Days such as the World Day of the Poor, Children in Need and Mitzvah Day serve as reminders for the behaviours we should have in our lives. We may be selfish at times, but not self-absorbed. We may desire nice things, but not be greedy. We may look out for ourselves, as long as we also look out for the other.

May we never think that our desires outweigh the needs of others. May we always be able to look outside of ourselves to those around us and work together for the greater good. And ultimately, may we be able to keep a balance between serving ourselves and our needs, and serving others and the needs of the community.