Tzedakah Activists Vs. Sodomites

The Journey to Unity - 62

Tzedakah Activists Versus the Sodomites:

"For I have loved him because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Compassionate One to do tzedakah and justice" (Genesis 18:19).

"Behold, this was the sin of Sodom, your sister: She and her daughters had pride, surfeit of bread and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy" (Ezekiel 16:49).

Dear Friends,

From the perspective of Jewish tradition, is tzedakah a mitzvah that Gentiles should also fulfill? Do all the nations of the world have a Divine mandate to establish caring societies that help and strengthen those in need? A 13th century sage, the Ramban - also known as Nachmanides - finds a reference to tzedakah and the nations of the world in the following verse from Proverbs (14:34): "Tzedakah uplifts a nation." He writes: "Tzedakah exalts any individual nation that practices it" (Commentary to Leviticus 17:20). According to the Ramban, the classic example of a cruel and selfish society which failed to do acts of tzedakah was the city-state of Sodom, which was why this society was destroyed during the era of Avraham and Sarah. The story of Sodom's destruction appears in chapter 19 of the Book of Genesis, and in his commentary on a verse from this chapter (19:5), the Ramban points out that the root cause of Sodom's destruction is described in the following Divine message:

"Behold, this was the sin of Sodom, your sister: She and her daughters had pride, surfeit of bread and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy. And they were haughty, and they committed an abomination before Me, so I removed them in accordance with what I saw." (Ezekiel 16:49,50)

Hashem - the Compassionate One - called the selfishness of Sodom an "abomination"! The Ramban adds: "The reference (in Genesis 13:13) to their 'being very wicked and sinful towards Hashem exceedingly' is to the fact that they rebelled in their prosperity and persecuted the poor, as Ezekiel states: 'And they were haughty and committed an abomination before Me.' According to our sages, they were notorious for every evil, but their fate was sealed for their persistence in not supporting the poor and the needy. They were continually guilty of this sin, and no nation could be compared to Sodom for cruelty."

Another 13th century sage, Rabbenu Yonah, expresses a similar idea:

"We find concerning the sin of Sodom, that although they sinned with many perverse acts such as robbery, violence, miscarriage of justice, and illicit sexual relations, Scripture attributes their annihilation to their failure to practice tzedakah, as it is stated, 'Behold this was the sin of Sodom, your sister...she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy.' " (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:15).

Jewish tradition views Sodom as the epitome of selfishness; thus, selfish behavior is referred to in our tradition by the contemptuous epithet "midas Sodom" - the attitude of Sodom, and it is a term which can apply to an individual or to an entire nation. (An example of this term can be found in Pirkei Avos 5:13.)

As we discussed in other Hazon letters, there is a universal moral code known as "the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah" which is the spiritual legacy of all humanity. Tzedakah, however, is not specifically mentioned in this code; thus, why were the inhabitants of Sodom held accountable for their failure to perform acts of tzedakah? We will discuss two answers in this series, and the beginning of the first answer can be found in a teaching of the "Sefer Ha-Chinuch," a classical compendium of the Torah's 613 mitzvos. According to this work, the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah are actually seven broad categories of mitzvos which actually contain many of the 613 mitzvos which are incumbent upon Jews. The Sefer Ha-Chinuch cites as an example the Torah's prohibition against coveting what belongs to another person (Deut. 5:18); and it states:

"This prohibition applies at all times, in all places, to both men and women, and to all human beings. This is so because it is part of the prohibition against stealing, which is one of the Seven Mitzvos that all human beings are to observe. Make no mistake concerning the enumeration of the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah - these being well-known and recorded in the Talmud - for they are but categories, and they contain many particulars." The Sefer Ha-Chinuch points out that since the Children of Noah were adjured about stealing, they were equally adjured about all Torah decrees to keep a person far away from stealing, such as the prohibition against coveting what belongs to another human being.

In a related teaching, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, a noted sage of the early 20th century, suggests that the Sodomites - in their refusal to help the poor - were guilty of "stealing." And the prohibition against stealing is one of the "Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah" - the universal moral code. In what way did the Sodomites specifically violate the prohibition against stealing? Rav Meltzer explains that when a poor person's life is at stake because of a lack of basic necessities, extending a helping hand to him is an absolute obligation, even if this means spending more than 20 percent of one's income (the usual ceiling for giving tzedakah). The reason is because the Torah states, "You shall not stand by while your fellow's blood is being shed" (Leviticus 19:16). In such a case, teaches Rav Meltzer, not giving money is equivalent to "stealing" money. For when a person's poverty endangers his life in any way, he has a legal claim to the resources in our possession which can save his life. This is the reason, adds Rav Meltzer, why the Torah emphasizes the cries of the victims of Sodom's cruelty and apathy: "For their outcry has become great before the Compassionate One" (Genesis 19:13). This is to show that the needy people had reached the stage of poverty where they actually cried out in agony and desperation, as their very lives were in danger. In such a situation, it was more than just a meritorious course of action for others to help them; it was an absolute requirement, and not doing so was tantamount to "stealing," which is prohibited by the universal moral code. (Cited in "The Haggadah of the Roshei Yeshivos," page 273, ArtScroll)

According to the above teachings, contemporary wealthy nations have a Divine obligation to give immediate relief to starving and homeless people wherever they may be. If they stubbornly refuse to intervene on behalf of the suffering poor, then they too might suffer the fate of Sodom. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, a noted sage of the late 19th century, cites a tradition that before the dawn of the messianic age, the Compassionate One will judge the nations of the world for their abandonment of the poor, as it is written (Psalm 12:6): "For the oppression of the poor, for the cry of the needy, I will now arise, says the Compassionate One." (This teaching is found in "Beis HaLevi on the Haggadah," in his commentary on the passage, "This is the Bread of Affliction.")

Let us therefore get ready for the dawn of the messianic age by increasing our acts of tzedakah. As the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed: "Zion will be redeemed with justice and those who return to her with tzedakah" (Isaiah 1:27). And the Prophet also proclaimed:

"Thus said the Compassionate One: Guard justice and perform acts of tzedakah, for My salvation is soon to come, and My benevolence to be revealed." (Isaiah 56:1)

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings and Comments:

1. The Torah tells us that Avraham "commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Compassionate One to do tzedakah and justice" (Genesis 18:19), and in the very next verse, the Torah refers to the cries of those who were the victims of Sodom's selfishness: "The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great" (18:20). Through the juxtaposition of these two statements, the Torah is indicating that we, the children of Avraham, are to become tzedakah activists who will serve as a contrast to the cruelty of the selfish Sodomites. In this way, all human beings will be inspired to follow our ethical example.

2. Rav Meltzer reminded us that when a poor person lacks the necessities of life, his life is in danger. This reminder leads me to suggest a special reason why Avraham stressed the mitzvah of tzedakah in the spiritual legacy that he gave over to his descendants Avraham was aware of how the social selfishness of Sodom endangered the lives of the poor and needy. He therefore wanted his descendants to be especially diligent in fulfilling this mitzvah, for through this mitzvah, they can save lives! In fact, the authority on Torah law known as "the Tur" writes in his "Laws of Tzedakah" that a human being must be exceedingly careful about the mitzvah of tzedakah - more so than with any other mitzvah of action - for a delay in giving tzedakah can lead to the death of the poor (Yorah Deah 247:1).

3. In the Torah's story about Sodom's destruction, there is an allusion to the Sodomite practice of raping travelers who came to their city. The Torah records that when Abraham's nephew, Lot - who lived in Sodom - took travelers into his home, all the men of Sodom converged upon his home, and they said to Lot: "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them" (Genesis 19:5). The word "know" in our Sacred Scriptures is often used as a delicate term for sexual relations. For example, the Torah states, "Now the man had known his wife Eve, and she conceived" (Genesis 4:1). And Lot himself states, "I have two daughters who have never known a man" (Genesis 19:8). According to the Ramban, the main cause for their sexual attacks on strangers was not homosexual lust; the main cause was their sadistic selfishness, for they wanted to discourage poor travelers from entering their prosperous city. In his commentary on the words, "we may know them," the Ramban writes: "Their intention was to stop people from coming among them, as our Rabbis have said (Sanhedirn 109a), for they thought that because of the excellence of their land, which was 'as the Garden of Hashem,' many will come there, and they (the Sodomites) despised tzedakah."

4. According to Jewish tradition, the most serious sin of Sodom was their social selfishness. In fact, the word "Sodom" in rabbinic literature refers to selfish behavior - midas Sodom." Christian tradition, however, emphasized their sexual behavior as the primary sin, and this perspective is found in those cultures which were influenced by Christianity. For example, in the English language, we have the term "sodomy," which is derived from "Sodom."

5. Copies of the following letters which are related to the above themes are available from Hazon upon request:

A. Introduction to the Universal Moral Code

B. Two letters from Rav Aharon Feldman which offer respectful and compassionate guidance to Torah-committed Jews with a homosexual orientation

6. There is an ancient Jewish tradition to give 10-20 percent of one's income to tzedakah; moreover, as mentioned above, there are special cases when one gives more than the usual percentage. With the exception of these cases, our sages say that a person should not give more than 20 percent of his income to tzedekah, lest he impoverish himself and thereby become dependent on other people for his support. (The Chofetz Chaim, in his book "Loving Kindness," mentions that this limitation does not apply to an extremely wealthy person, and he lists other exceptions, as well.) This tradition of tithing is known in Hebrew as "Maaser Kesafim." There is an English book titled "Maaser Kesafim" (Editor: Professor Cyril Domb) which discusses the laws of tithing one's earnings for tzedakah. It is published by Feldheim:  . The tradition of tithing is also discussed in the book, "The Tzedakah Treasury" by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, which is published by ArtScroll:  . Some of the information in the above letter has been adapted from "The Tzedakah Treasury" - courtesy of the copyright holder, ArtScroll/Mesorah.

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