Shaarei Shamayim

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This has been a truly tragic week for America with worst terror attack on American soil since 9/11, in lower Manhattan—just a few blocks from the site of the Twin Towers. But this is nothing new. Let me read to you a sample of terror attacks in just the last few months:

March 22, London, Parliament— 6 dead, 50 injured

April 10, Paris, Champs-Élysées—1 dead 3 injured

May 22, Manchester, England—22 dead, 59 injured

June 3, London Bridge attack—7 dead, 48 injured

June 6, Paris, Notre Dame—1 injured

June 19, London, Finsbury Park—1 dead, 9 injured

In all, 46 terror attacks in Europe so far this year.

Oct. 1, Las Vegas 59 dead, 546 injured

So far in 2017 there have been 1,054 attacks in the world with 6,605 fatalities.

The attack in lower Manhattan on Tuesday left 8 dead and 12 injured, and yet if we’re honest, we’ll admit that most of us have just about forgotten about it already. After 9/11, months later, even years later, we were still reeling from the horror of it all. But now 4 days later it’s behind us—back to the old grind? How is it that we have accepted terror as the new “normal?” How is it that our hearts have become so hardened to it all?

The Torah today introduces us to the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with the passage (Gen. 18:20): “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and their sin has been very grave…” What was the nature of their evil, their sinfulness?

Rabbinic legends about Sodom and Gomorrah describe an area of unusual natural resources, precious stones, silver and gold. The Torah (Gen. 13:13) tells us that the entire plain was “well-watered…like the garden of Gd”—and it follows that the crops were plentiful and good. Every path in Sodom, say the sages, was lined with 7 rows of fruit trees. Eager to keep their great wealth for themselves, and suspicious of outsiders’ desires to share in it, the residents agreed to overturn the ancient law of hospitality to wayfarers. This legislation later prohibited giving charity to anyone. By doing this they figured they would preserve an elite upper-class community who would monopolize the profits that the bountiful land offers without having to distribute any revenues to a “lower class” of people.

The Sodomites were not much nicer to their own. In fact, the Midrash (Gen. Raba 48) tells 2 tales of women who dared extend a helping hand to beggars and were put to death—one of them the daughter of Lot. She secretly carried bread out to a poor person in the street in her water pitcher. After 3 days passed and the man didn’t die, the maiden was discovered. They covered her with honey and put her atop the city walls, leaving her there until bees came and ate her alive.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a) tells us that in order to enter Sodom, one had to cross a river, so they built a bridge over the river, and charged an exorbitantly high fee to cross it. When one man tried to swim the river to avoid the fee they charged him double, beat him up and ordered that he reward those who beat him because everyone knows the benefits of bloodletting.

The Talmud tells us that they provided guest houses in their city with beds of a single standard size. When a guest came looking for lodging, they would make sure that the bed fit perfectly. If he was shorter than the bed, his hosts would stretch him out until he fit. Should he be too tall, they would hack off his feet.

All common human decencies were anathema to the Sodomites. This even affected Lot who—thanks to being raised by Abraham and Sarah—still knew to offer the strangers—like the angels who visited him—hospitality. Yet even his sense of hospitality became corrupted. He was willing to give over his daughters to satisfy the people’s sexual lust rather than hand over his guests to them so that they could be “Sodomized.” In this way Lot began to take on the characteristics of Sodom and so he needed to be rescued before he became as depraved as they were. 

The callousness of the Sodomites was infectious, based on this desire to always have more for oneself—more money, more land, more jewels, more servants, more everything—and an unwillingness to part with anything. No one cared about helping those less fortunate. “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” was the ethic of Sodom and Gomorrah  according to the Talmud (Avot 5:13). At 1st blush this might seem to be a sensible and harmless, but it places one’s focus solely on one’s own possessions and one’s own financial gain and ignores the basic demand of Gd that we care for each other. This every-man-for-himself attitude may seem harmless, but as these stories reveal, it ultimately leads to true evil.

But how did it happen that they became so selfish, which led to them becoming so evil? I think part of the answer is that they began to see this selfish evil behavior in a few people. After a while they saw it again and again until they got used to seeing it and began to accept this behavior as a new “normal.” It didn’t take much longer for their hearts to become hardened to it and embrace it.

As we read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, it serves as a warning to us today. I believe that humanity is basically good, and that people—each one created in the image of Gd—want to care for those in need. But I also believe that the desire for wealth and security—which is a natural and understandable drive—can overtake us if let our hearts become hardened to the plight of others.

And so we must never forget what happened this week in lower Manhattan just a few blocks from the site of the Twin Towers. We must never forget what happened in London or Paris in the last few months or anywhere else terror raised its ugly head. And we must never allow our hearts to harden and look upon terrorism as the “new normal.” It’s not normal! No, Gd forbid, for we are each an image of Gd and so were all the victims of terror. Amen!

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