By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
Where Is Sodom?
Sodom is generally identified on the southern bank of the Dead Sea, some 390m below sea level, and it is the lowest land elevation on earth. Its Arabic name, Khirbet as-Sudum, served to preserve the name of the site. Nearby is Mount Sodom, consisting mainly of limestone and salt. The whole area is situated on a major fault line, the Syro-African Depression. Perhaps its geographical location, as the lowest point on earth, alludes to the moral character of its original inhabitants.
The Source of Corruption
We first encounter Sodom in last week’s parashah, when Lot, after his return from Egypt, “looked about him and saw how well-watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it … like the garden of the L-rd, like the land of Egypt.” (Bereishit 13:10). Almost in the same breath, though, the plain’s inhabitants are described as “wicked sinners against the L-rd exceedingly” (13:13).
Chazal link these two characteristics, maintaining that Sodom’s rich natural resources led to the moral corruption of its inhabitants. The Sages taught (Bamidbar Rabbah 9:24):
The people of Sodom became haughty [and sinned] due only to the excessive goodness that the Holy One, Blessed be He, bestowed upon them.” Iyov (28:5–6) calls Sodom: “As for the earth, out of it comes bread, and underneath it is turned up as it were by fire. Its stones are the place of sapphires, and it has dust of gold.” […] The people of Sodom said: “Since we live in a land from which bread comes and has the dust of gold [we have everything we need]. Why do we need travelers, as they come only to divest us of our property? Come, let us cause the proper treatment of travelers to be forgotten from our land.”
As Yechezkel sums up their sin (16:49–50):
Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet, she did not support the poor and the needy. In their haughtiness, they committed abomination before Me; and so I removed them, as you saw.
The inhabitants of Sodom should have used their riches to perform acts of kindness; their drive to hoard their riches, linked in part with their failure to acknowledge that their riches were from G-d, drove them to perform heinous crimes against travelers and the poor: “G-d said to them: With the goodness that I have bestowed upon you, you seek to cause the proper treatment of travelers to be forgotten from among you? I will cause you to be forgotten from the world” (Bamidbar Rabbah 9:24).
Even Plant Life Suffers
The blow Sodom received was extremely harsh. “The L-rd rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from the L-rd out of heaven. He annihilated those cities and the entire Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the ground” (Bereishit 19:24–25).
According to Chazal, “Even the plants of the ground were adversely affected” (Bereishit Rabbah 51:4). This seems to indicate that beyond the immediate effect of the overturning of Sodom mentioned in the verse above, the effects on the flora were long-lasting. Grapevines that look pleasant to the eye but produce grapes that are bitter or even poisonous are called “גפן סדום,” as in the verse: “Ah! The vine for them is from Sodom, from the vineyards of Gomorrah; the grapes for them are poison, a bitter growth their clusters” (Devarim 32:32).
Moreover, a plant growing in the Dead Sea area, described by Josephus Flavius (Hist. v.6) as having an “externally fair appearance, but turning to smoke and ashes when plucked with the hands,” is called the Sodom apple. Dr. Immanuel Löw, Hungarian Bible scholar and botanist (1854–1944), identifies this fruit as petilat ha’midbar (Calotropic procera), whose fibers are prohibited to be used as wicks for Shabbat candles (mentioned in the Mishnah, Shabbat, 2:1). The name seems to indicate that it was once edible, but was no longer so after Sodom’s destruction.
The destruction of the fertile land that was so terribly misused, along with the people who corrupted themselves through gross ingratitude and pursuit of the land’s riches, seems, indeed, to be just deserts.
Matanot Aniyim: Antidote to Sodom
Only Lot, who still had some link to the lovingkindness of Avraham — and who used his possessions to provide hospitality to what turned out to be his saviors — is spared, along with his two daughters.
Chesed, lovingkindness, is the antipode of the trait of kfiyut tovah, ingratitude — the trait that resulted in the Sodomites’ shocking cruelty. The ability to be kind and use our resources for others stems from a keen awareness that all the material wealth we have is from G-d and should be used to do good. This trait is not lost. Rut descends from Lot. Even when completely destitute, she embodies chesed, providing for Naomi from the wheat she gleans from leket.
Leket is one of the many matanot aniyim, gifts for the poor, which farmers need to set aside from their produce. These mitzvot foster an awareness that all agricultural plenty is from G-d; we are grateful for our agricultural abundance and duty-bound to share our plenty with the less-fortunate. Indeed, matanot aniyim, along with the vast majority of the land-dependent mitzvot, all cultivate this gratitude to G-d and, as a direct result, a desire to share it with others.
A Happy Ending For Sodom?
The story of Sodom left a stark geographical – moral mark, reminding the Jewish People about what happens when we forget the Source of our abundance in the Land of Israel. After learning this lesson, there is room for Yechezkel’s solace, predicting a brighter future for the ruined city: “Then your sister Sodom and her daughters shall return to their former state” (Yechezkel 16:55). Perhaps today, when the Dead Sea Works mines the mineral salts onsite, we can see how this prophecy has begun to materialize.
Meir Zion Cohen, “Parashah Eretz Yisraelit”; translated and adapted by Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325