Mercy and Justice

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
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Throughout the sad and sordid history of mankind, there have been many wicked nations who committed terrible atrocities against man and G‑d.  Even in Tanach we find incidents such as the story of Pilegesh in Givah, where a man’s home was assaulted by a gathering of the townspeople, just as the men of Sodom assaulted Lot.[1]  Yet we never find such a devastating punishment as occurred to Sodom, when an entire section of the earth’s crust was overturned, burying four entire cities beneath it, while fire and brimstone descended from Heaven, leaving no survivors other than Lot and his two daughters who fled for their lives.

Rabbeinu Bachaye explains the singularity of Sodom’s wickedness:

שהיו בהם כל המדות הרעות, וכמו שדרשו רז"ל ואנשי סדום רעים וחטאים, רעים בממונם  ... וחטאים בגופם ...  לה' זו ברכת השם. מאד זו שפיכות דמים... אבל נגמר דינם בעון שהיו מואסים את הצדקה ולא היו משגיחים על ענייהם ועל רעיהם שהיו מוטלים ברעב... והנביא העיד כן באמרו הנה זה היה עון סדום אחותך גאון שבעת לחם ושלות השקט היה לה ולבנותיה ויד עני ואביון לא החזיקה ... ולפי שהיו תדירין בחטא הזה לכך נגמר גזר דינם עליו, שהרי אין לך אומה בעולם שלא יעשו צדקה אלו עם אלו, ואנשי סדום היו מואסים בה והיו אכזרים בתכלית, ואע"פ שלא נתנה תורה עדיין, הנה הצדקה מן המצות המושכלות, ודבר מתועב הוא שיראה אדם את מינו מוטל ברעב והוא עשיר ושבע מכל טוב ואינו מרחם עליו להשיב את נפשו, על אחת כמה וכמה על מי שהוא מאומתו ודר עמו בעיר אחת, ועל כן אבדן השם יתברך לאנשי סדום שהיו מונעים אותה ולקח נקמת העניים.

Sodom exhibited every wicked trait imaginable, as our Sages infer from the verse, “And the men of Sodom were wicked and evil to Hashem, very much so.”  Wicked - with their money; evil - with their bodies; to Hashem – by cursing Hashem’s Name, very much so – by spilling innocent blood… Nevertheless their doom was sealed for despising charity and paying no heed to their poor starving brethren … The Navi testified against them, “This was the sin of your sister, Sodom.  She prided herself for the satisfaction of bread, peace and quiet that she and her suburbs enjoyed, yet she did not support the hand of the poor and destitute[2]”…

Since they were consistently heartless towards the poor, this sin sealed their doom.  There is no other nation in the world that completely failed to do any kind of charity … like the people of Sodom, who despised charity and were absolutely cruel.

Although the Torah had not yet been given, human reason is enough to obligate giving charity.  It is contemptible for a person to see his kinsman starving, while he is rich and satisfied with everything good, yet pitiless towards his fellow man, refusing to revive his soul.

How much worse is it when the poor man is a member of his own nation and a resident of his own city.  Therefore, Hashem destroyed Sodom for refusing to practice any form of charity.  He thus exacted the vengeance of the poor.[3]

Even among their own kinsmen, the Sodomites showed no compassion or charity, thus revealing themselves to be a cruel and callous nation, entirely overrun with selfish greed.  Since they had not even the slightest degree of mercy towards one another, no mercy was shown to them from Heaven.

Another aspect of Sodom’s guilt is noted by the Akeidas Yitzchak, who explains that whereas many nations practice acts of cruelty on occasion, there is usually some system of government to restrain them.  The incident of Pilegesh of Givah was an act of mob violence which was severely punished by the Tribes of Israel, who waged war to avenge the poor woman’s death.  In contrast, the cruelty of Sodom and their negligence towards the poor was an established part of their national ideology which was actually enforced by their courts.

The Gemara discusses the corrupt and deliberately evil system of law practiced there:

ארבע דייני היו בסדום שקראי ושקרוראי זייפי ומצלי דינא דמחי ליה לאיתתא דחבריה ומפלא ליה אמרי ליה יהבה ניהליה דניעברה ניהליך. דפסיק ליה לאודנא דחמרא דחבריה אמרו ליה הבה ניהליה עד דקדחא. דפדע ליה לחבריה אמרי ליה הב ליה אגרא דשקל לך דמא...  אליעזר עבד אברהם איתרמי התם פדיוהי אתא לקמיה דיינא אמר ליה הב ליה אגרא דשקל לך דמא שקל גללא פדיוהי איהו לדיינא אמר מאי האי אמר ליה אגרא דנפק לי מנך הב ניהליה להאי וזוזי דידי כדקיימי קיימי.

The four judges of Sodom were named Liar, Deceiver, Forger and Corrupter of Justice.  If a person would strike a wounded woman and cause her to miscarry, the courts would order that she be given to her assailant to be impregnated again.  If a person would cut off the ear of his fellow’s donkey, they would order that the assailant be given the donkey to keep until the ear grew back.  If a person would wound his fellow, they would order the victim to pay his assailant doctor’s fee for letting his blood.

Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, was once attacked while passing through Sodom.  He went to court, where he was ordered to pay his assailant for letting his blood.  He then picked up a stone and threw it at the judge.

“What is this?” asked the judge.

“The fee you owe me for letting your blood can be paid directly to my own assailant, and I will keep my money for myself,” he answered.[4]

The Sifri states: “The appointment of fair judges is enough of a merit to ensure the settlement of Bnei Yisrael on their land.”  In any country or community there are bound to be a certain percentage of wicked and cruel people who perpetrate acts of violence and sin.  However, as long as there is a fair system of courts to punish the wicked and prevent such atrocities from recurring, the country as a whole may be considered fair and just.

In his introduction to Shav Shmaitsa, the author of Ketzos HaChoshen comments on this passage from the Sifri, stating as follows:

אם העיר מוקפת חומת החוקים וגזירות הטובות ודתות הישרות אף על פי שלפעמים יעלו שועלים יפרצו גדרים וישביתו חוקים הנה נא העיר הזאת קרובה להרפא ולהתקן כי יקום אחד בעיר ושנים ממשפחה להוכיח את העם יעורו לבבם וישובו לאיתנם הראשון.

אמנם אם אין לה שום גדר לא מתקנה ולא מנהג טוב ומה גם שיש לה חומה גבוה מנחשים ועקרבים קוצים וברקנים חוקים לא טובים ומשפטים בל יחיו בם כו', והנה באמת זה היה חטאת סדום כו' עד אשר הקימו להם דברים רעים ומגונים לחוקים טובים וקבעו בהם מסמרות בקנסות שלא יעברו עליהם כו'

If a city is protected by a wall of fair decrees and just statutes, then even if the walls of justice are occasionally breached by the proverbial foxes who trample the laws, the city can soon be healed and the injustices mended.  Some distinguished member of the city will eventually rise to rebuke them and lead the city back to its original course of justice.

But if there are no protective walls [of justice], no edicts, and no proper customs, but instead a towering wall of snakes, scorpions and thorns in the form of unjust laws and statutes by which they cannot live … then they truly emulate the sins of Sodom, who institutionalized their wicked, lowly ways into national laws enforced by fines for all who violated them.

Our Sages assure us that, “If justice is enforced from below, it need not be enforced from Above.” [5]  If fair judgment is practiced by the earthly courts, then the Heavenly courts need not inflict harsh punishments for our sins.  Before shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana, mori v’rebbe the Klausenberger Rav zt”l would study the laws of honest business from the Ketzos HaChoshen’s commentary on the Choshen Mishpat section of Shulchan Aruch.  He explained that the study and enforcement of these laws is a great merit to protect Klal Yisrael from punishment in the coming year.

May we all merit to be kind towards the poor and honest in all our business dealings, and be judged favorably by the Heavenly Courts, for peace and blessing in all our endeavors.


[1] Shoftim 19:22-28.  See Ramban, Bereishis 19:8

[2] Yechezkel 16:49

[3] Rabbeinu Bechaye, Bereishis 18:20

[4] Sanhedrin 109b

[5] Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 4