Sodom and Gomorrah were deemed by God to be irredeemably evil. If one were to ask 100 people what was the crime, most would indicate something having to do with homosexuality. But the real story, according to the rabbis, is that Sodom and Gomorrah were blessed with rich natural resources — a blooming oasis in the midst of the sweltering desert, a land flowing not only with milk and honey, but also with gold and silver. The inhabitants, intoxicated by their abundance, developed a definitional ethic: “Sheli, sheli; v’shelakh, shelakh.” What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. (Pirkei Avot 5:10) Nobody took care of the weak, the sick, or the elderly. Borders were sealed, and those who were able to slip into the cities were greeted not only with disdain but with brutality. Very quickly, inhospitality descended into utter ruthlessness.
This persisted until God finally said: “‘It’s not my problem’ is the problem.”
A midrashic story: A man is traveling on a boat with companions when he starts drilling a hole beneath his seat. The other travelers inveigh against him: “What are you doing?” The man keeps drilling: “Why do you care? I’m only drilling under my own seat.” But as water begins to flood the floor of the boat, they shout: “But you will flood the boat for us all!” (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6)
I’m looking out for myself, says the individualist sensibility.
To Cain’s historic question,“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Rabbi Marshall Meyer answers, “Yes! We are our brothers’ keepers! Whether or not we find it desirable, comfortable, feasible, or pleasant. We are responsible for our society!” We’re all in this together, says the religious sensibility.
So how can it be that after the shock and devastation of the Newtown shooting, our
supremely religious nation failed to muster the political will to demand reasonable gun laws that would avert the next tragic loss? How could we have failed to unite around a shared vision of gun violence prevention that stands at the intersection of reason and compassion, and that honors right and responsibility, freedom and the sanctity of life, the individual and the public good?
The answer is simple. We don’t fundamentally believe that we’re all in this together. American citizenry is fraught and fragmented, hardly compelled by notions of mutual obligation and responsibility. That essential truth nullifies the organizing power of even the most persuasive speeches and the most disturbing broadcasted funerals. Even the well-intentioned, quiet majority of people who are deeply saddened by rising incidents of gun deaths in the country have proven unwilling to invest in this struggle for the long haul. At the end of the day, if we really felt that the tragedy of the families in Newtown was our problem, if we felt that the tens of thousands of Americans who die each year from gun related deaths — homicides, suicides, accidents — was our problem, we’d demand change. We’d refuse to sleep as long as guns are easier to purchase than Sudafed in this country.
But the nature of our nurture today directs us to think about ourselves, to worry for our own, to build higher walls and install better alarm systems, and to pray to God that violence doesn’t come any closer to home. The ethic of Sodom has so deeply penetrated our culture that we have really come to believe that our neighbor’s pain is not our problem. And that is more than a political problem, it is a spiritual problem with dire consequences.
Since the Newtown massacre, guns have killed more than 20,000 people in the United States. This may well be the great shame of our generation. Our children and grandchildren will wonder how we could abide such reckless abandonment of the common good.
I wonder: What will it take? How many more tragedies until we realize we must be our brothers’ keepers? How long until we realize how irretrievably and inextricably connected we are to one another?
The Torah offers a counterpoint to Sodom’s culture of selfishness. In Deuteronomy, we read the strange case of a dead man found in the wilderness. The elders of the city closest to the corpse engage in a ritual expiation; reciting, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.” (Deuteronomy 21:7) But why would we have even thought them responsible? The rabbis explain: Maybe this man came through our town and we were not welcoming enough. Did we offer him food? Did we even see him? If only we had treated him properly, accompanied him on his way to his next destination, he would not have been left vulnerable to attack. (Mishnah Sotah 9:6) Imagine a political and social structure in which accountability is taken that seriously: each of us, responsible for all of us.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is near the beginning of Genesis. The story of the abandoned corpse is near the end of Deuteronomy. It took hundreds of years, most of it spent in Egyptian captivity, for the children of Abraham to learn what kind of society they didn’t want to live in. Finally, as they stood on the cusp of entering the Promised Land, they were able to articulate the kind of polity/society they did want to build. When will we?email print