We began to discuss the deeper significance of the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah – the basic precepts of the universal Torah path for humankind. As we mentioned, Gentiles who follow this path are permitted to live in the Land of Israel. In this letter, we will begin to discuss Torah teachings which reveal that there are other mitzvos which all human beings are to fulfill.
Among the 613 mitzvos which the People of Israel are to fulfill is the mitzvah of tzedekah – the Divine mandate to share our resources with those in need. Is tzedakah a mitzvah that all human beings are to fulfill? An answer to this question can be found in the Torah’s story about the city of Sodom whose people were “wicked and sinful toward Hashem, exceedingly” (Genesis 13:13). Sodom was a city in the Land of Israel during the era of Abraham, before the birth of the People of Israel. The story of Sodom’s destruction appears in the Torah portion of the approaching Shabbos, Parshas Va’yeirah. At the beginning of the story about Sodom’s destruction, three angels, disguised as three men, came to Sodom in the evening, and Abraham’s nephew, Lot, kindly invited them into his home. The Torah then states:
“They had not yet laid down, when the men of the city, the men of Sodom, converged upon the house, from young to old, all the people from every quarter. And they called to Lot and said to him, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’ ” (Genesis 19:4,5)
“That we may know them”: Within our Sacred Scriptures, the term “knowing” often refers to sexual relations. For example, the Torah states, “Now the man had known his wife Eve, and she conceived” (Genesis 4:1). The above passage therefore indicates that the men of Sodom wanted to rape the three strangers. (Commentary of Rashi, based on Midrash Genesis Rabbah 50:5)
The commentator, Ramban, interprets the above passage in a similar manner, but he also discusses the root cause of their cruel and perverse behavior. He writes:
“Their intention was to bring an end to travelers coming among them, as our sages say, for they thought that because of the goodness of their land, which was ‘like the Garden of Hashem’ (Genesis 13:10), many will come there.” (Commentary on Genesis 19:5)
Ramban adds that they wanted to discourage needy travelers from entering their region, “because they were despisers of tzedakah.” Ramban then sets out to prove that this was the root cause of their behavior, and he cites the following Divine message regarding Sodom which was conveyed by the Prophet Ezekiel:
“Behold, this was the sin of Sodom, your sister: She and her daughters had pride, surfeit of bread and peaceful serenity, but the hand of the poor and needy she did not strengthen. 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)
Ramban explains that the “abomination” before Hashem was their selfish and cruel behavior towards the poor, and he writes:
“The reference (in Genesis 13:13) to their ‘being very wicked and sinful towards Hashem exceedingly’ means that they angered Hashem and rebelled against Him through their tranquility and through their oppression of the poor, as it states: ‘And they were haughty and committed an abomination before Me, so I removed them in accordance with what I saw.’ In the opinion of our sages, they (the Sodomites) had within themselves all kinds of evil character traits, but their judgment was sealed because of this sin – i.e., they did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy – since this sin represented their usual behavior more than all the others.”
The people of Sodom failed to fulfill their responsibility to practice tzedakah. What is the basis of this responsibility? Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon writes in his introduction to the Talmud that human beings in every generation have an obligation to perform any mitzvah of the Torah which is suggested by “reason and the understanding of the heart.”
The commentator, Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher, explains that tzedakah is a mitzvah which can be understood by human reason, and this is why the Sodomites were held accountable for not sharing their vast resources with the needy (commentary to Genesis 18:20). He mentions a related teaching in his classical work on Torah concepts and precepts, Kad HaKemach, in the chapter on tzedekah, where he writes:
“All the peoples must engage in tzedakah and loving-kindness, for they exist because of these practices and are punished for their neglect.”
Kad HaKemach also has a chapter on Torah teachings and mitzvos regarding the treatment of a stranger. In this chapter, Rabbenu Bachya discusses two verses from the Book of Job, where Job states:
“Never did I withhold the needs of the destitute” (Job 31:16).
“The stranger did not lodge in the street; I opened my doors to the wayfarer” (Job 31:32).
In his explanation of the above statements, Rabbeinu Bachya cites the tradition that Job was a Gentile who descended from Abraham, and regarding Job’s righteous conduct, Rebbeinu Bachya writes:
“He served Hashem, the Blessed One, through the mitzvos which can be understood by human reason – doing acts of loving-kindness to all.”
Rebbeinu Bachya adds: “This should be an inspiration for the human being to broaden the extent of his compassion.”
Be Well, and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. Jewish tradition views the selfish behavior of the people of Sodom as their primary sin; 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.)
Christianity, however, tended to emphasize the sexual behavior of the Sodomites 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” – a term derived from “Sodom.”
2. As Ramban reminds us, the final Divine judgment of Sodom was due to the “abomination” of social selfishness. In his commentary on the story of Sodom, Ramban discusses another dimension of this severe sin. He reminds us that this sin took place within the sacred Land of Israel, and writes: “You should know that the judgment of Sodom was due to the lofty level of the Land of Israel” (commentary to Genesis 19:5).
There are verses within our Sacred Scriptures which reveal that the sacred Land of Israel requires a higher standard of behavior on the part of its residents, whether they are Israelites or Gentiles. This is a deep topic which I hope to discuss, with the help of Hashem, in the future.
3. Regarding all the mitzvos of the Torah, the noted sage of the Talmud, Rav, teaches:
“The mitzvos were given in order to refine human beings.” (Genesis Rabbah 44:1)
This teaching indicates that even those mitzvos of the Torah which are not readily suggested by our human reason serve the Divine purpose through refining us. For example, there are mitzvos which remind us that human beings are the custodians, and not the owners, of the earth.
There are also mitzvos which deepen our connection to formative spiritual experiences in our national history, such as the Exodus from Egypt; moreover, there are mitzvos which strengthen our ability to become “a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). And in a previous letter, we cited a kabbalistic teaching on how each mitzvah has a positive, metaphysical effect on the soul.
Our study of Torah, the Divine Teaching, must therefore be accompanied by a humble awareness that our finite minds may not be able to fully understand the reason or reasons for each mitzvah given to us by the Infinite One. As Maimonides writes:
“It is fitting for a human being to meditate on the laws of the Holy Torah, to know their ultimate meaning and purpose, to the extent of his ability. Yet if there is something for which he is unable to find a reason, and the motive is not known to him, let it not be a light, trifling matter in his eyes, and let him not break through to rise up against Hashem” (Mishneh Torah of Maimonides – Hilchos M''ilah 8:8).
4. Rebbeinu Bachya’s Kad HaKemach has an English translation by Rabbi Dr. Charles Chavel, which is titled, “Encyclopedia of Torah Thoughts” (Shilo Publishing House).