The Real Sin of Sodom: Scarsdale-Hartsdale Interfaith Thanksgiving Service 2019


Once upon a time, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had it good.  Really good.  

Hear me out on this.  

What we know about Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis is only the beginning of the story.  To recap: “[T]he people of Sodom were wicked, exceedingly sinful before the Almighty.”  God confides in Abraham the intention to go down and confirm the worrisome reports about Sodom and Gomorrah, “because their sin is very grievous” (Genesis 13:13).  

Abraham famously bargains with God, urging God to live up to the reputation as “Judge of all the earth” and act justly by saving the cities if just ten righteous souls can be found (Gen. 18:25).  

Abraham’s audacity toward God for the sake of justice, what we Jewish people call “chutzpah,” is laudable, but in the end, even ten righteous citizens prove elusive and the city finds itself on the wrong end of fire and brimstone, an environmental catastrophe that would cause the names Sodom and Gomorrah forever to be associated with destruction and waste, utterly uninhabitable forever.  And, if you look even today to the barren landscape surrounding the Dead Sea, where these Biblical communities presumably once thrived, you will find salt flats and sulphur pits to match the Biblical description of the wreckage, even down to a famous geological formation that looks in profile a lot like a woman and is known in Israeli folklore as “Lot’s wife,” the ill-fated resident of Sodom who disobeyed God’s will, looked back while fleeing the city, and turned into a pillar of salt.

But it wasn’t always ravage and ruin and high sodium content for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, or so the tradition goes.  In the Rabbinic imagination, these twin cities once had an unusually strong economy.  Stories abound in the midrash, the collections of Rabbinic legend, about the abundance of Sodom and Gomorrah.  (Mind you, all of these folktales come from the imagination of the Rabbis, the great teachers of the tradition, so don’t go looking in your Bibles—you won’t find them there.) 

One story reports that the agriculture of Sodom was uncommonly lush and rich—foliage so dense that made it impossible to see Sodom from the air, carrots that grew as tall as people, a single sheep or goat that could feed for a family for years.  Another reports that when the Sodomites plucked vegetables from the earth, gold dust would scatter from the roots.

There is, of course, no crime in prosperity.  So why did God slate all those people for destruction?  What horrible thing could they have done, that made God want to blow up two whole cities? 

Ezekiel gives us a clue.  He said they “were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before [God]” (Ez. 16:49-50). 

And so—the Midrash elaborates—despite their extravagant wealth,

The people of Sodom and Gomorrah refused to export outside their own little province.  They barred immigrants from their cities, fearing that they would hurt their wages, take their jobs, eat their food, steal their riches.  They put steep tariffs on imported goods and zealously hoarded their bounty (Summarizing and paraphrasing from various sources compiled in Bialik & Ravnitzky, eds., trans. William G. Braude, The Book of Legends (Sefer Ha-Aggadah): Legends from the Talmud and Midrash.  New York, Schocken Books, 1992.  pp. 36-37, §30).

And lest you think the Rabbis were concerned only with matters of “policy,” they also denounced the Sodomites as wantonly cruel:

Not only would they refuse to provide food for guests and strangers but they also would cut off the branches of fruit trees specifically in order to deprive the birds;

One story relates how a resident who gave bread to the poor was rounded up by the Sodomites and burnt alive;

Another says that when guests slept over in Sodom, they’d offer a bed and then, if it was too long, they would shorten their guests by lopping off their feet; if too short, they would forcibly stretch the victims (Ibid).

But the most astonishing teaching about Sodom suggests that its citizens were actually not too very different from you or me.  

“A person who says, ‘What’s mine belongs to me, and what’s yours belongs to you,’—this is an average type of person, according to the ancient tradition.  But some Rabbis disagreed, and said, “This is the Sodom type” (Mishna Avot (Pirkei Avot), 5:13.)

What’s mine belongs to me; what’s yours belongs to you.  This is, after all, the essence of capitalism:  What I earn, I keep.  What you earn, you keep.  We go about our own business.  We don’t get involved in each other’s affairs.  How could anyone possibly confuse the wickedness of Sodom with this ordinary, benign, outlook?

And that, I think, is the whole point:  that it’s all too easy for an “ordinary, benign outlook” to become a vehicle for the perpetuation of injustice, even cruelty.

And specifically this outlook—that declares that if I have what I have, and you have what you have, then what good does it do me to look after you?  what does it matter to me whether or not you have enough?”—this outlook can, under the right circumstances, lurch into a looking-the-other-way, a not looking out for people in need, for people who don’t have enough, people who may never have enough.  

There’s a song in a show on Broadway right now about this very idea.  The show is called Hadestown and the song (which, by the way, was composed in 2006) is called, “Why we Build the Wall.”  

“Why do we build the wall, my children, my children?” it goes,

“The wall keeps out the enemy, and we build the wall to keep us free, That’s why we build the wall, to keep us free.  Because we have and they have not… because they want what we have got – that’s why we build the wall” (Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown, “Why We Build the Wall,” 2006).

Our society ought to pursue prosperity.  America should be the kind of place where people “want what we have got.”  But the true measure of a society is not how it rewards the fortunate or even the successful.  “The true measure of any society,” Gandhi taught, “can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”  This explains the doom of Sodom; it also explains the division in America.  We presently have two visions of how we judge our society:  one vision starts by asking how the “haves” are doing:  how strong is the economy, as measured by employment rates and consumer spending and the stock market?  The other vision considers how the “have nots” are faring:  what’s our record on poverty, health care for the neediest, opportunity for minorities, criminal justice, food insecurity, homelessness?

The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.  The Bible understood this, because Deuteronomy reports what must have presented as an all-too-commonplace real-life scenario and then insists that we all have an obligation to deal with it:  

15:7 If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need….  10 Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.”  

There’s even a verse that says, “Don’t even think about refusing to loan to a person in need just because the year for canceling debts is around the corner,” referring to the Biblical custom of remitting debts every seven years.  “Don’t even think about” depriving your needy neighbor the loan he needs to make ends meet.  

15:11 There will always be poor people in the land,” it continues. “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” 

In a society of endemic poverty—where the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, further concentrating and entrenching the wealth and power and opportunity afforded the rich while further impoverishing the poor—in such a society, the rule of, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” is, in fact, a perpetuation of the crime of Sodom—which, of course, was Greed, plain and simple.

Earlier this month, Michael Tomasky of the New York Times wrote a column called, “Bill Gates, I Implore You to Connect Some Dots,” (referring to Bill Gates’ recent dust-up with Elizabeth Warren) in which Tomasky noted that 

Multibillion-dollar fortunes are often called excessive and decadent. But here’s something they’re rarely called but ought to be: anti-democratic. These fortunes will destroy our democracy.  Why “anti-democratic”?  Why would it matter to our democracy whether Jeff Bezos is worth $113 billion (his current figure) or $13 billion?

Because any democracy needs a robust and thriving middle class, and we have spent the last 30 or so years transferring trillions of dollars from the middle class to the people at the very top. Just one set of numbers, from the University of California, Berkeley, economist Gabriel Zucman: The 400 richest Americans — the top .00025 percent of the population — now own more of the country’s riches than the 150 million adults in the bottom 60 percent of wealth distribution. The 400’s share has tripled since the 1980s.

This is carnage, plain and simple. No democratic society can let that keep happening and expect to stay a democracy. It will produce a middle and working classes with no sense of security, and when people have no sense that the system is providing them with basic security, they’ll make some odd and desperate choices (From The New York Times (online edition), November 11, 2019).

That’s why, “What’s Mine is Mine, What’s Yours is Yours” is an outlook associated with the people of Sodom.  There is, however, one more type of person, for whom the Rabbis reserved special praise.  This person says:  “What’s yours is yours, and what’s mine is yours.”  The Rabbis did not think this kind of behavior “average” at all.  They call it chasid—which happens to be the same word as Hasid, like the Hasidic communities of Brooklyn—but which literally means, filled with lovingkindness (Avot 5:13).

We need a society that reaches for lovingkindness.  A society that reaches for lovingkindness views inequality as a failure to recognize the basic humanity and dignity of one’s fellow man and woman.  A society that reaches for lovingkindness sees a quality education, fair job opportunity, and the basic health care of each citizen as fundamental rights, not privileges for those who can afford them.  A society that reaches for lovingkindness treats its immigrants—yes, even those who come to this country illegally—with basic human decency and dignity. 

A society that reaches for lovingkindness does not intentionally separate families, deprive detainees of toothbrushes, toilets, and soap, smear immigrants as criminals or potential criminals, and slander refugees as terrorists-in-wait.

A society that reaches for lovingkindness may in fact know, as Deuteronomy knows, that “There will be poor, always,” but such a society nevertheless insists that we “Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart.” 

They say that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and there’s solid research to back up that old adage.  A noteworthy study discovered in 2011 that, across countries, … inequality “is associated with lower growth rates and shorter growth spells.  Redistribution [of wealth], for the most part, is not.”

Friends:  We have so much bounty.  How good is our harvest.  How much we have that merits thanks.  God has blessed us in so many ways.  Now it is our holy work to figure out how best to let others share in those blessings.

We express our thanks best by giving of ourselves generously to others.  Especially as the end of the year approaches and we think about our charitable giving, consider visiting and researching those organizations that help us share our blessings with populations in need. 

We express our thanks best when we volunteer our time to the betterment of the human family.  So please consider volunteering at a local soup kitchen, homeless shelter, church, synagogue, mosque, community center, to give to others the most precious gifts you have—your time and your human presence.    

We express our thanks best by supporting those policies that best distribute opportunity to all, not only to a few, so please consider calling or writing your elected officials and advocate for the right and the just.  

This Thanksgiving season, let us express our thanks by building a society in which all have cause to give thanks.  


Happy Thanksgiving!


Bereshit 5780 – Jewish Wisdom for the 100-Year Life: Chai Society Shabbat

OCTOBER 25, 2019 – 7:45 PM

Parashat Bereshit, the opening passage in our annual cycle of Torah reading, introduces us to a number of characters whose apparent longevity strains credulity.  

In Genesis, chapter 5, we meet Enosh, who lives to 905 years.  Mahalalel, 895 years. Jared, 962 years. Methuselah, oldest man of the Hebrew Bible, 969 years.  We learn that Adam, long after having raised Cain and Abel, whose tragic story is the stuff of every parent’s worst nightmare, went back to childrearing at the age of 130 years, named this third child Seth, lived another 800 years, and died at the age of 930.  Seth makes it to 912 years. And the chapter ends by introducing us to Noah, who didn’t even start having kids until he was 500 years old!

Rabbi Leo Abrami, who died last year at 86–an entirely respectable lifespan for a man of our times–summarized the literature on this subject:

“The ages attributed to the early human ancestors in Genesis,” he notes, 

are quite unlike those we are accustomed to in our modern world….  These extremely long life spans were explained in many ways. Josephus [the great first-century Roman-Jewish historian] writes that it may have been a function of their diet, or that God allowed them to live so long because they were close to the initial creation of man and were “beloved by God.”  Nachmanides [the RaMBaN, or Moses ben Nachman, who lived in 13th Century Spain] explains that since early man was more perfect biologically, people lived much longer…. Modern archeological discoveries provide a new way of approaching these long life spans…. [An ancient Sumerian] [c]uneiform document [that is almost 3,800 years old] enumerates the names of eight kings who reigned before the flood according to Sumerian saga, and their ages happen to be multiples of 3600… (Abrami, Leo Michel.  “The Ages of the Personalities in Genesis,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4.  October-December 2011). 

And, Professor Brian Abrahamson, an Australian Bible scholar, recently performed a factorial analysis of the ages of Biblical figures and concluded that several of them appear to be multiples of 19.  Methuselah’s 969 years correspond to 51 times 19. Noah lived 950 years, or 50 times 19. Seth lived 912 years, or 48 times 19. And Adam himself lived 930 years which is or 49 times 19… minus 1 (possibly, the professor conjectures, because Adam committed a major sin). This is, indeed, an amazing sequence of multiples of 19, which led Abrahamson to conclude that these numbers must have had a symbolic meaning in antiquity. 

I, for one, have a hard time visualizing my life past next Wednesday, let alone 900 some odd years from now.  Imagining life at 80 or 90 is difficult enough, although I have resigned myself to the possibility that, even then, people will still tell me that I look too young to be a rabbi.

And yet, recent studies indicate that each of us would be wise to contemplate both the opportunities and challenges afforded by increasing human longevity.  Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, co-authors of The 100-Year Life:  Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, note that whereas, 

For much of human history, life was well described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish, and short,” … continued scientific, economic and social progress over the centuries has raised living standards and life expectancy.  While these benefits have not been spread equally across countries, or even within countries, in general, life is now less nasty, less brutish and certainly less short…. Over the last 200 years, best practice life expectancy has increased at a near constant rate of more than two years every decade.  If this trend continues, a child born in the UK [the authors’ home country] today has more than a 50% chance of living to 105. On average, most of these extra years of life will be healthy ones. It is as if the arc of life has been extended (Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, “Our life in three stages – school, work, retirement – will not survive much longer,” The Guardian (online edition), September 4, 2016).

The implications of this, the authors contend, are far-ranging and dramatic.  Most of us are accustomed to the idea of a three-stage life: an early phase of education, followed by a longer phase of work, and then retirement.  But this life-structure, which emerged as the norm across the industrialized world in the 20th century, is unlikely to survive the 21st.  

A redefinition of aging is already well underway:  how many times has someone recently reminded you that “60 is the new 40?”  Soon we may be hearing that 100 is the new 80!  

We’re already observing trends here in Scarsdale that bear out many of the authors’ hypotheses.  People are marrying and having children later. They are initiating mid-career breaks, taking time out to explore, build their own businesses, pursue new education at older stages of life.  They are negotiating greater flexibility in their jobs, sometimes going abroad, often with kids in tow, for months or even years at a time. We even have families in the congregation with grown, married children of their own, who much later in life, like Adam and Eve, have decided to have a second round of kids!   

Tonight, at our Chai Society Shabbat, when we honor members of WRT who have affiliated for eighteen years and more (not necessarily all of our oldest members, but certainly those of longest vintage), I’d like to outline three Jewish implications for a 100-year life:  first, in our approach to education, second, in our approach to work, and third, in our approach to spiritual vitality.  

Contemplating the effect of a 100-year life on one’s approach to education benefits from a wealth of Jewish wisdom.  Simply put, Judaism has never premised education as a project relegated to one phase of life, much less only the first phase of life, but rather frames learning as a lifelong pursuit.  

Those who have mastered the art of living have long internalized the wisdom of this approach.  Tao Porchon-Lynch, a 100-year-old master yoga teacher and Westchester resident recently commented:  “I haven’t finished learning. My students are my teachers.”

I know how she feels.  This past week in our Melton program–which itself attests to WRT’s commitment to lifelong Jewish learning–we studied a famous passage from a Talmud commentary called Avot de-Rabbi Natan, which probes the origins of Akiva, the great 2nd Century Rabbi.  

“How did Rabbi Akiva start out?” the Rabbis asked.  They said: “He was forty years old and had never studied anything.  Once, while standing in front of a well, Akiva asked, ‘Who engraved this stone?’  They answered, ‘[It was] the water, which drips upon it every day. Akiva, are you not familiar [with the verse from the Book of Job, 14:19]: “As the waters wear away the stones?”’  Right then and there, Rabbi Akiva made the following deduction: ‘If something soft [as water] can chisel its way through something hard [as stone], then surely the words of Torah, which are hard as iron, can penetrate my heart, which is but flesh and blood!’”  At that moment, Akiva signed up for Hebrew school, as it were, learning his Alef-Bet at the age of 40 and going on to become the most learned Sage of his generation (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Ver. A, Ch. 6).  

 Starting in mid-life, learning gradually:  Akiva models not only the what but the how of Jewish learning.  And, also, the why:  so that, little by little, the words of Torah might penetrate the heart and transform our lives from the inside out.  

Of course this flies in the face of how many Jewish communities actually function.  Jewish education imitates the pattern of secular education: something parents give their kids to occupy them for while, and then stop.  If commitment to Jewish learning in a family happens to be strong, the child may continue past Bar or Bat Mitzvah to Confirmation and on through High School graduation.  But even students on college campuses with robust Jewish populations and active Hillel chapters have little motivation, much less opportunity, to pursue serious Jewish learning.  And then the cycle tends to repeat itself, with adults re-engaging with the question of Jewish education only after they have children of their own.

A 100-year life forces a comprehensive reckoning with our relationship with education, with similar implications for Jewish education.  “How can you maintain and build productive assets,” ask Scott and Lytton, “when most education takes place in your 20s? How can what you have learned remain relevant over the next 60 years against a backdrop of technological upheaval and industrial transformation?”  

Analogous questions might be asked of our Jewish education:  How can we ever hope to develop a meaningful spiritual life with a 7th-grade understanding of God, Prayer, or Belief?  How can we expect what we learned in religious school as children to remain relevant for the rest of our lives? Only an Akiva-like approach to Jewish learning might address these concerns.

The authors of The 100-Year Life also predict the upheaval that longevity will prompt in our work.  “Consider this: people who live to 100 will have around 100,000 extra productive hours than those who live to 70.  Unless we can find the motivation and the means to save more,” they conclude, “an inevitable consequence is that we will have to work longer.” 

The AARP already reports that men and women working not only past traditional retirement age but well into their 70s, 80s and sometimes beyond, now comprise “the hottest demographic in the labor market,” and the fastest-growing segment of the workforce.  

People currently in their 20s can expect to work into their late 70s or even early 80s, and people in their mid-40s (like this rabbi) should plan to work into their mid-70s.  As Scott and Lytton argue: “We need to create a world where this is feasible and beneficial, a way that makes a longer life a blessing and not a curse.”

Judaism, predictably, has a lot to say about this too.  Obviously our Biblical and Talmudic sources could not have anticipated the norms of 21st century life, such as the emergence of a multi-stage career, a work trajectory that includes multiple, meaningful professional engagements spread out over much time, with ample investment in time outside the office as well, for creative pursuits, family, travel, and the education to develop new proficiencies and pursue new professional opportunities.  

This is not to say that Judaism is silent on the subject of a productive and meaningful work life.  Far from it! Perhaps the most meaningful Jewish notion pertaining to our relationship with labor that emerges from the traditional literature is, of course, the Shabbat, and its less well-known but equally important relative, the Sabbatical.  

Many have argued that the Sabbath is the single greatest contribution of the Jewish tradition to human civilization.  The notion is deceptively simple to understand and deceptively tricky to implement in the modern world: Six days on, one day off.  That’s it. That’s Judaism’s brilliant innovation. Six days on, one day off. The thing is, right now, in America, particularly in this not-so-sleepy suburb populated with a surplus of high-powered executives, the notion of Shabbat, of six days on, one day off, is downright counter-cultural, in the very best way.  

Let’s just name it:  many of us are overworked.  Between our responsibilities to our jobs, and our unpaid jobs as members of families and volunteer leaders in our communities, we seem to be obeying a traffic light that displays only green.  We need Shabbat. We need a break. Regularly. Weekly. We need to stop. Think. Pray. Celebrate. Learn. Eat a meal together. Rest. Take a walk in the fall foliage. Light a havdalah candle.  Breathe.

And if Shabbat is countercultural, the idea of a Sabbatical is downright transgressive, which must be why it hasn’t much caught on outside the realms of academia and the clergy, which is a shame.  Congregations who seek a long-term investment in their clergy would be wise to view sabbatical as an investment in the long-term vitality of their spiritual leaders and the sustained vibrancy of the congregation.  Sabbatical not only invites professionals to rejuvenate; it also prompts them to pursue creative opportunities, deepen their learning, and develop new skills that can benefit every member of an organization. Imagine the advances in science, medicine, industry, business, and the legal and financial professions if companies and professionals invested in regular Sabbaticals for their top executives.  

The multi-phase career occasioned by a 100-year life begs for a renewed attention to Shabbat and Sabbatical, ancient Jewish ideas with profound wisdom for a modern world.     

Finally, let us consider the question of our spiritual vitality as we live longer and healthier lives.  An extended lifespan comprised of all work and no play, all work and no learning, all work and no extracurricular pursuits, may solve the financial challenge of longevity; but it will inevitability deplete other important life-assets:  chiefly, our emotional health, our friendships and relationships, and, above all, our spiritual wellbeing.  

In response to this dilemma I cannot prescribe a simple Jewish remedy like lifelong learning or Shabbat and Sabbatical, although I believe that attentiveness to these will contribute dramatically to enhanced spiritual vitality over the long haul.  

What I can tell you is that while Judaism may not add years to our life, it can most certainly add life to our years.  

Several years ago, a family moved up their recently widowed mom to Westchester and introduced her to WRT.  Within weeks she was a regular at Shabbat services. In a few months time, Torah Study had, effectively, adopted her, and you could find her here every Saturday morning.  New friendships blossomed out of her bereavement. Soon she was leading book groups and participating in every WRJ program, and so much more. Out of the shadow of her bereavement emerged the sunlight of a renewed spirit.  She proudly called WRT her second home for the last almost 15 years of her life, until her own death a little over a year ago. And her story is not atypical. Whenever I see a person with many years in the rearview mirror find spiritual rejuvenation through his or her Jewish connection, I think of how wrong F. Scott Fitzgerald was, when he declared “There are no second acts in American lives.”  Judaism proposes that it’s never too late for a second act, and a third, and perhaps even more, should God bless us with years and health enough to keep writing the story of our days.

As I look out into the congregation tonight, I acknowledge with admiration how many of you took to heart our invitation to #showupforshabbat, in remembrance of the victims of the shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, one year ago this weekend.  I admire your commitment to honor the slain, and to stand together against antisemitism and hate and intolerance. But to #showupforshabbat on a significant yahrzeit such as tonight is not a great sacrifice.  To #showupforshabbat week after week, and for profound Jewish learning at every age and stage of life; to show up for the baby namings and aufrufs and funerals and shivas of members of our community; to show up for the volunteer dinners and holiday parties for guests with visual impairments or developmental disabilities; to show up for the needy, poor, and hungry with helping hands and generosity of spirit; to show up for Israel and the Jewish people worldwide–these are, indeed, commitments worth honoring.  

And for those of you who have been showing up for 18 years, and 36 years, and 54 years, and more–we all find inspiration in your example and gratitude for the strength and vitality that you have given WRT for so many years.  

May our congregation, a very youthful 66 years strong, be blessed to know the longevity of our ancestors, and write many fruitful chapters to come in the Book of Life of Westchester Reform Temple.  Amen.