VAYERA, Genesis 18:1-22:24
This week's Torah portion contains one of the most famous occurrences of divine punishment, ranking right up there with the flood and the Tower of Babel: the destruction of several cities and the saving of Abraham's nephew Lot.
Ask any child which cities were destroyed, and he or she will tell you that it was only Sodom and Gomorrah that incurred the Almighty's wrath, a view supported by a word-for-word reading of the Torah.
Rabbinic sources indicate, however, that two other cities shared in their neighbors' fate that day. We know of these locales' existences from a listing of the five city-states that took one side of an epic battle mentioned in last week's portion: Sodom and Gomorrah, the two most-powerful allies; Zoar, which Lot flees to after being saved from the destruction; and Admah and Zeboiim.
Rashi provides further proof that Sodom and Gomorrah were not alone: He explains that when Abraham boldly implores God to reverse his impending judgment, he logically bases his request of saving the five cities on the possible existence of 50 righteous individuals: a minyan for each place. When Abraham whittles the number down to 40, and then 30, 20 and 10, he is implicitly acknowledging the destruction of one city, then two, three and so on.
According to tradition, though, Sodom and Gomorrah endured an even greater punishment: On top of being literally, as the original Hebrew attests, "turned over" — which happened to Admah and Zeboiim as well — these two cities were also inundated with sulfurous fire from above.
What did the inhabitants do that was so bad?
The Torah records that Lot's neighbors wanted to brazenly harm the guests he was entertaining, going as far as to threaten Lot with death: "Now we will deal worse with you," they said, "than with them." Commentators, meanwhile, fill in some of the details, and emphasize that Sodom and Gomorrah were known for their wickedness, and that their citizens transgressed all of the seven Noahide laws. Such immorality, though, brought only flood several generations earlier — not fire and brimstone.
The prophet Ezekiel explained why such wrath was incurred: the people of Sodom "did not support the poor and the needy."
The difference between the punishments that befell Admah and Zeboiim on the one hand, and Sodom and Gomorrah on the other, can be further understood in light of the different punishments that befell the generations of Noah and the Tower of Babel.
The builders of the tower embarked on a campaign to make war with Heaven; at first glance, they would seem to be deserving of the harsher punishment. But they were united in their purpose, even in language. Peace reigned in their kingdom.
Noah's contemporaries, however, were robbers and thieves. Their behavior negated any sense of order or compassion.
In much the same way, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah embodied the very antithesis of human rights and dignity, over and above their disregard of a moral existence. Those in Admah and Zeboiim behaved wickedly, but treated their fellows with respect.
The demands of living a Jewish life are two-fold. Adherence to Torah and the laws of heaven typified the behavior of the matriarchs and patriarchs. Equally important, though, were their love of humanity and their embrace of the downtrodden.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected]