The Incident at Sodom and Immigration Policy

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

When I spent a year reviewing five comments of Rashi’s on each parsha, I strove to spread the selected comments from throughout the parsha. That’s my overall intent in studying Ramban as well, except that he often has lengthy comments so rich that they take up all our space. This week, for example, comments of his on what happens when the angels encounter Lot will more than fill our bellies with insight into those and other events.

Extending Oneself for Others

When Lot sees the angels, he invites them to his home, and 19;3 tells us va-yiftzar bam me’od, he pressed them greatly. Ramban thinks that tells us that Lot was sincere, which was a merit that made them more willing to accept his hospitality. At the outset, they refused both to help him increase his merits as well as because they were not willing to enter the home of someone who wasn’t a tzaddik tamim, a wholly righteous person.

Lot’s interest in helping wayfarers is more impressive than it might at first seem, for Ramban, since on verse five, he cited Sanhedrin 109a, which says that the people of Sodom objected to visitors because they did not want immigrants [Ramban does take some of the Sodom story as being based on anti-immigrant sentiment, other than the wealthiest ones, such as Lot. I did not realize that that has contemporary implications until after I was already writing this summary. It ends up being political in our times, but I did not choose these Rambans to feed any agenda of mine. Which doesn’t mean Ramban’s words aren’t worth taking to heart. It’s also worth remembering that the US in the early and mid-twentieth century had a checkered record on immigrants; it accepted many, but it also had constant discussions of quotas, and of forcing immigrants to prove they already had means of support.]

Deserving the Angelic

Ramban’s view of the angels also stands out, that they would have refused to enter Lot’s home had he not built up merit. Especially since they had been sent to take him out of town, and because angels are often portrayed as having little or no will of their own, Ramban’s view offers a different perspective.

He sees angels as having some sense of themselves, some notion of what’s comfortable or uncomfortable. To associate with (or at least to enter the home of) a man who’s not a tzaddik tamim is unpleasant enough that they would not have done it; to avoid that, they helped him by refusing at first, giving him the opportunity to earn their presence. That sees them as choosing their associates as well as taking action to help others improve themselves.

Sodom’s Sin and Punishment

Where the people of Sodom demand to see Lot’s guests, verse five, Ramban sees their anti-immigration policy at work. (Lot got in on his wealth or the prestige of Avraham, he says.) Yechezkel 16;49 refers to Sodom’s refusal to support the poor, when she herself was wealthy and sated, as its essential sin, which shows Ramban that this is a lasting part of Sodom’s image.

Sodom also gets punished more quickly than it might have otherwise because it is in the Land of Israel. He’ll say this several more times (such as in Vayikra 18;24), but his view is that the Land of Israel (metaphysically) cannot tolerate sinners.

Sodom meets its fate not because it was the worst place ever—outside of Israel, others were equally evil or depraved. But in Israel, behavior that might be allowed to linger elsewhere is stamped out more quickly, because of Israel’s sanctity and as a sign to those who might in the future consider acting in similar ways.

Lot’s Concern for His Daughters, or Lack of It

By far the longest comment in the parsha comes at 19;8, where Lot offers to send out his daughters instead of the angels. Ramban first points out how his dedication to being a good host reveals his poor sexual ethics. Were Lot to have had a moral problem with men using (we would say abusing) his daughters sexually, he never would have offered that; he suggested it only because he didn’t see it as a problem.

Tanchuma Vayera 12 is his source; it says that in general, a man will give his life to protect his daughters’ sexuality. The Midrash thinks that Lot’s willingness to give them up led Hashem to react that Lot must have been saving them for himself (I think the Midrash means that he had not yet married them off because he was hoping to use them himself, as he eventually did. Since he was already thinking about them sexually, he thought of giving them to the Sodomites. That also changes how we read his later impregnating those daughters, but Ramban doesn’t get into that).

Ramban takes the moral flaw the Midrash identified and says that it went deeper, that he didn’t see a problem with making them available to the mob crowded at his door.

Sodom or the Concubine of Giv’a

Ramban brings up Shofetim 19, where a man’s concubine leaves him for her father’s house (verse two says va-tizneh alav, which Ramban understands to mean that she prostituted herself—or had an affair– and then left him). The husband woos her back, but on their return home, they get stuck for a night in Give’a, where the townspeople act similarly to the Sodomites.

In Shofetim, the man doesn’t just offer his concubine, he throws her out to them, they abuse and rape her the whole night, and she dies in the morning. His reading of the continuation of the story is the most interesting part of Ramban’s discussion, so let’s leave that for a bit.

Similar as the stories are, Ramban highlights differences that make Sodom worse (and what he sees as worse is itself educative). Scripture describes the crowd in Sodom as the entire populace, while in Give’a, it refers to benei beli’ya’al, morally deficient people. They were powerful enough politically that no one could stop them, but the entire city wasn’t directly implicated.

Second, Ramban thinks the people of Give’a cared about the sex; once the men sent out the concubine, they satisfied themselves and that was it. Terrible as that is, he sees it as better than Sodom, where the people wanted to be sure they weren’t required to help needy people. Part of his reasoning, I think I should mention, is that he understood the phrase in Shofetim to mean that the concubine had been unfaithful (and, perhaps, promiscuous) and also that he did not think being gang-raped was the reason she died. I don’t need to agree with either of those claims to see that they affect his view of the two incidents.

But it is still clear that he thought the desire to avoid helping others in need was worse than the desire to have improper sexual relations. Since the Torah includes some versions of sexual immorality among the commandments one must die before transgressing, his claim here is arresting, that as bad as sexual depravity is, opposition to helping others in need is worse.

Binyamin Should Have Taken Care of Their Own

In reaction to what happened (the concubine dies the next morning), the man convinces all the tribes other than Binyamin to wage war. Ramban thinks that the people of Give’a did not deserve death from a legal perspective, but cites Sanhedrin 46a, which says that courts may punish in ways the Torah itself did not prescribe, to protect Torah observance. The war against Give’a (and Binyamin) was to make clear that this behavior could not and would not be tolerated.

The rest of Binyamin did not join, they sided with Give’a. Ramban thinks that was primarily because they objected on jurisdictional grounds. Since Give’a was their city, the nation should have let them judge the wrong and react to it. Ramban thinks that’s a general principle, stated in Sifrei 144, that each tribe judges itself. The man should have gone to the elders of Binyamin first, and only if they refused to handle it would it have been acceptable to involve others.

In fact, Binyamin was not offended by what had happened, which made them worthy of the punishment they eventually got (it’s a truth I worry is still too little recognized, that we are obligated to react when we see a wrong, not just refrain from participating; Binyamin’s failure to do so made them liable for the terrible destruction that then came their way. In other words, the refusal or failure to oppose evil can bring consequences worse than the original evil itself. As Watergate and following scandals should have taught us, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up).

The People Fail to Consult with Hashem

The beginnings of the war go badly for the massed tribes, and Ramban attributes that to several failures on their part. First, Binyamin was right that they should have been given the first opportunity to react. Second, they did not ask Hashem before they launched this endeavor—they asked who should lead them into battle, but not whether to go or whether they’d win, because they had no doubt. There were ten times as many of them, how could they not win?

In a sobering side comment, Ramban says Hashem responded to the question asked, that Yehudah should always lead them into battle. His reading feels very contemporary, that people might assume much that is untrue, and then think they asked Hashem what they should do. Nor does Hashem correct them; Hashem answers what’s asked. Sometimes when we go wrong, for Ramban, Hashem forces us to realize that truth on our own.

Since neither side acted properly, Hashem left their outcomes to happenstance. The more proficient soldiers of Binyamin won at first, but then they went wrong, killing more of their brethren than they needed to. Then the massed tribes turned to Hashem, although they yet ask whether they would win [I could imagine assuming that’s part of the question of “should I go to war,” but Ramban isn’t taking it that way], because they were still sure their superior numbers guaranteed a victory.

Massive casualties the next day drove the point home, and they turned to Hashem fully, and repented their reliance on their own strength. At that point, Hashem helped them.

What Moves Us to Object

The last idea we can mention here is his quote of Sanhedrin 103b, that the roots of this war were in a previous incident, the idol of Michah. In briefest summary, the tribe of Dan stole another man’s idol (from which he had made a living, like churches that make a nice living off parishioners’ donations) and took it to their new residence.

There is no recorded hue and cry in that instance, when Hashem’s honor was insulted by the spread of idolatry, but there was here, over the mistreatment of the concubine and her husband. Sanhedrin sees Hashem as objecting to those misplaced values, which led to a civil war that ended up hurting everybody.

The people of Sodom were evil in ways Lot managed to avoid emulating (he wanted to welcome guests). But their policies, for Ramban, were intolerable, objectively and especially in a Land that does not accept such behavior upon it. And they were more so than the superficially similar concubine story, which was about sexual perversions, a tribe’s refusal to police itself, and a nation’s failure to see where and how to consult Hashem as it moved to restore justice.

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