What is the sin of Sodom? That’s a question that has fascinated commentators for generations. And it stems from this week’s Torah portion, parshat Vayera. God tells Abraham that the sin of Sodom is so great that God has to destroy it. In response, Abraham bargains and begs God for their lives, asking for mercy for the innocent. And while God is moved, Sodom is destroyed anyway. So, commentators ask: what is so grave about the sin of Sodom that it warrants destruction?
The most well-known interpretation is that the sin is homosexuality, but the Jewish tradition doesn’t hold with this belief. In the Jewish tradition, the sin of Sodom is wanton cruelty.
Midrash gives us several examples to help us understand the contours of Sodom. We learn that when a stranger would come to town, he would be welcomed and every citizen would give him a dinar, a coin, but first he’d write his own name on that dinar. And then everyone in town would systematically refuse to sell the stranger any food. And when he died of starvation, each Sodomite would come and retrieve his dinar. The veil of generous welcome was belied by human indifference. Also in Sodom, Pleitat, Lot’s daughter, was once walking through town and she saw a poor and hungry man in the square.
Her heart broke for him, and so every day, she would fill her water pitcher with food to give to him on her way to the well. Eventually, the people of Sodom remarked to one another: how is it that this man is still alive?” And when they figured out what she had been doing, they killed her. For feeding this poor man. These are the sins of Sodom in Jewish tradition. Not just abandoning the vulnerable, but also killing those who would extend them kindness.
And why? What was their purpose? They didn’t want strangers to come into their land and ruin it. Of course, the sick irony is that they were so worried their good land would be ruined that in their actions to preserve it, everything that was once beautiful about it fell away. It is the same sick irony we are facing today.
This is the cruelty, and in many ways, this is the theory, behind what we saw when I traveled last week to the southern border of our country, to El Paso, TX and Juarez, Mexico, with a group of Jewish clergy. I began sharing stories with you about this last week and I am grateful for your staying with it this week. Even as these are not the uplifting stories that I would want to be sharing with you on Shabbat, they are things we need to know. Because what is happening in our name, under the guise of trying to keep our beautiful country for ourselves, is destroying all that makes our country beautiful in the first place. In some very unsettling ways, we are living in times of Sodom.
Last week, I shared with you some of what we saw on the Mexican side of the border. Tonight, I want to share with you some of what we saw on this side of the border, inside the Otero Detention Center.
This is a place that detains young adult men, asylum seekers, locked up, though they’ve committed no crime. We were taken on a sanitized and eerie tour, led by a PR employee, a deportation officer, a minister, and the warden herself. We were first led by small waiting rooms that held five to ten men, who we could see through a glass window. They looked at us with sad eyes. We looked back at them and did anything a human being might do to silently signal love. We put our hand to our heart or gave a small nod, trying to tell them we know this is not right, we see their humanity. There were shackles laying on the ground when we walked in, but otherwise, everything was tidied, quiet, strange. On the walls were old inspirational posters about strength, resilience, hard work. And God. It struck us as odd that in this federal building—privately owned as it is—we were greeted with crosses and religious quotes.
We met the doctor. We asked what kind of trauma the men had shared with her and how they were treated for it. She told us there was no trauma here. We knew this wasn’t true—many have escaped gangs, threats, are separated from their children, some have attempted suicide while in detention. There’s no trauma here, she assured us. We walked on.
They took us to the solitary confinement area. If you’re wondering why a detention center which houses people who have committed no crime has solitary cells, we wondered that, too. Tiny cells. No windows. No control of the lights. They told us they mostly only put people in solitary when they request to be in there. “Some people just like to be alone,” they told us. We knew this, too, was not true. We had learned that a number of detained men had recently held a peaceful sit-in to protest problems with the food and other grievances. They were threatened and the leader of this group was sentenced to a month in solitary. It is a prison. As we walked through the hall, one man pounded on his cell door just to let us know he was alive and in there.
They shared that the food costs for each detained person was $3 a day, while they received $759 a day, per bed filled, from the government. The more beds filled, the more money comes in. The men can work for $1 a day, though a call home is 35 cents a minute. You start to wonder if the private company writes their name on those $1 dinars, too, just waiting until they get them back.
The minister who walked with us wore a collar—it was maybe one of the most disturbing parts of the experience. His presence said—this is okay, what’s happening here. God is here. Faith ordains this. I spoke with him a bit—and left wondering what it must feel like for the detained men to see a clergy person there—who do they imagine is our God who would do these things to them and their families when they are at their most afraid, most hopeless?
I would say that we walked out of there not well. What we saw in Otero was a stripping down of a person’s humanity. And that poor man who sits in the middle of the city? We are being conditioned not to see him with empathy, as a person whose wandering reflects our own people’s wandering, but to see him as a threat and to be suspicious of what he wants to take from us. But we saw a spark of the divine in these men, their humanity, their broken hearts.
We attended a court case shortly after this visit of a man who would be detained and then deported. The judge asked him—why did you try to come here? “I have lived here for 13 years, he answered. My children live in Dallas.” He wanted to be with them. Like the Sodomites did to Pleitat giving food to the poor man, we have criminalized basic humanness.
So what do we do when we find we are living in the times of Sodom? In which our leaders profess to be keeping our country safe from those who supposedly seek to destroy it, but who are, in their actions, diminishing what makes it beautiful in the first place? What do we do when we are living in a time when water bottles which are placed in the desert to help people who are making the long and dangerous trek to seek asylum are shot up and drained by border security before they can save the life of a thirsty child? What do we do when the sins of Sodom, described 1500 years ago in our text, are reflected in our national mirror?
We animate the character of Abraham who was willing to fight for the lives of people that he did not even know. We awaken in us the spirit of Plotit who brought food to a hungry man because she knew that THAT is what preserves the beauty of a country. We refuse to be conditioned to see the other as a threat, but instead as one of us, as worthy as we are to live safe from fear and violence, to live with dignity and to know gentleness. We celebrate and support the work of Annunciation House, Immigrant Families Together, Las Americas, HIAS, and T’ruah who are providing help and working every day to change this situation.
One specific thing we are going to do is to explore whether we have some lawyers in and outside of our community—doesn’t have to be immigration lawyers—who can go to the border or stay right here in NYC and do some hugely impactful pro-bono legal work for families with otherwise no chance at having legal representation. HIAS will come and train our lawyers how to do this—because having representation saves lives.
If we find ourselves living in the time of Sodom, then we do all that we can to confront cruelty, to shine a light on callousness, to step toward solutions with our bodies and our hearts. Because we remember that we, too, are the immigrant, we are Ivri’im, border crossers, fellow human beings, food bringers and truth tellers. We can do better than this. And we will not look away.
Our weekly email contains service schedule information, messages of interest from Rabbi Kolin, upcoming event information and other news of interest to the community.
Everyone is welcome to be added to our list.