One of the most jarring moments in the story of Abraham is the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moments after hosting the angels who came to announce that he will have a son, Abraham is told that the cry of these wicked cities has reached G*d and that, except for his nephew Lot’s family, all will perish. While Abraham reacts by challenging G*d on behalf of the righteous, there is no argument that the cities of the plain are bastions of sin.
However, many would be surprised to learn that in the Jewish tradition the chief laws that Sodom is charged with violating are neither ritual, nor sexual (the common term notwithstanding) but rather the most basic human decency and dignity. In Sodom it was illegal to give hospitality to the stranger or food to those in need. In fact, according to one Rabbinic story, the singular offense that G*d responds to in dooming the city involves a young woman named Paltit who is caught secretly feeding a homeless and destitute old man. The city elders cover her with honey and expose her to a swarm of bees to sting her to death. It his/her anguished cry that G*d tells Abraham has risen to the heavens.
Sodom and Gomorrah are often used as synonyms for places where vile behavior is tolerated or promoted. However, we rarely hear this story associated with the scourge of failing to treat all human beings with proper dignity. In a way the bizarre but savage punishment perpetrated by Sodom shows in an exaggerated way what is at stake when presented with the choice between valuing or censuring acts of compassion. The sweetness of honey brings with it a vulnerability to the stings of the bees. In Sodom, to take care of another person was to do an act that could only lead to being hurt, but outside of that extreme world, there are still risks. In our world, we are called not only to choose kindness over cruelty but to do the best we can to protect, not punish, those who take risks for others