Penn State and the sins of Sodom

Penn State and the sins of Sodom

By coincidence, the week that the tide of scandal overwhelmed Penn State was the same week whose Torah portion described the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomora. We read that the sins of their citizens were so heinous that God could not permit them to live.

But how were the sins of Sodom so grave that it deserved obliteration? Besides the implication that strangers would be sexually mistreated there, Torah doesn’t tell us. Faced with this silence, the rabbis who created classical midrash speculated about the answer. They hung their explanations on the outcry, and maybe it was “her” outcry, that came from the city.

Let’s start with the area of Sodom before its fall. Midrash says that it was a place of great fertility and wealth. Plant life was abundant — picture a dense jungle — and food was plentiful. The earth was full of precious metal and gems. Pull a lettuce from the ground, and one would have to shake off the grains of gold adhering to the root. But the people of Sodom said, “Why should we take care of travelers, who come to us only to deprive us?” The sin of Sodom was utter selfishness.

And it is taught that the people of Sodom stole the wealth of the wealthy. Whether by murder or theft, they took riches that they saw in the possession of others. The sin of Sodom was covetousness.

Not content with that, they conspired to steal from poor people, too. From a brick factory each inhabitant would take only one brick, until none were left and the maker had nothing to sell. Yet each passer-by could say, “I took only one!” The sin of Sodom was conspiracy to do evil.

But they were not yet finished with the poor, devising rules to make them even poorer. If a poor person tried to evade the toll on a bridge by wading through the water beneath, on the far side he would be fined double the amount of the toll. The sin of Sodom was perversion of justice.

Further, there are several versions of the same episode. A young woman had compassion on a starving person and secretly fed him. When her efforts were discovered, she was given a gruesome execution. The sin of Sodom was banning and punishing compassion.

Let us be clear that the story of Sodom and Gomora is about human behavior. It is about morality. It applies to everyone, whether Jewish or not. One of the major questions that Torah poses is: how do we build a society that will be righteous in God’s sight? Many of the answers apply to all humanity and not only to Jews.

Already this year we have read about Cain, confronted by God after murdering his brother. Cain famously asked if he was his brother’s guardian, knowing the answer full well: We are all to be guardians for each other. That’s how a society — any society —survives and succeeds.

There is an abundance of stories in our Jewish tradition about people who have done evil. We are meant to learn from them to do the opposite. We are taught to be altruistic and not selfish, to be content with our lot and not to covet, to join together to do good rather than conspire to do evil, to be just in the face of injustice and compassionate instead of heartless. We learn to take responsibility for each other. And we learn further, unlike the tribe of Amalek that attacked the weakest among the Israelites, to attend to the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

It is not only the alleged crimes of Jerry Sandusky that should attract our attention. Although the word “sodomy,” derived from the city of Sodom, comes to mind, the sexual connotations of that word are far from sufficient to describe the sins I mentioned above.

I suggest that the sins of Sodom, along with those of Cain and Amalek, are the very same that apparently infected the football program and the administration of Penn State.

It seems we are looking at:

• The failure of altruism in order to remain employed and, for some, to reap popular accolades for competitive athletic success;

• The failure of openness and honesty, perhaps involving conspiracy, in order to do two things: avoid the inevitable scandal which is, of course, far worse now than it would have been years ago; and allow Mr. Sandusky to retain his privileges;

• The failure of justice in not ensuring that the law could take its course, and in sweeping the victims aside;

• The failure of compassion in disregarding the suffering caused by the crimes, and making it possible for the crimes to continue and damage yet more victims; and

• The failure of responsibility to protect the children’s physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual welfare, concentrating instead on material well-being, fame and adulation.

For all of us who are watching and reading about this situation, the lessons are clear. If you witness or suspect abuse, particularly of a violent or sexual nature, report it to the police and let them handle it. Watch out for the welfare of other people. If you should observe someone who might be suffering abuse, have compassion and take responsibility for helping them to escape their tormentors. Work with others to promote justice in a caring society. And never allow the legitimate enjoyment of entertainment to close your eyes and your heart to moral failure.

Our Torah is indeed a tree of life to those who hold it tight, and its supporters are happy and contribute to the general happiness of society. Let that be the blessing we take away from these terrible events.

(Rabbi Paul Tuchman is the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak.)