One of the most corrupt societies in history, and arguably, the most corrupt, was the city of Sodom. Sodomite people were known for their loose morals and their maniacally cruel disposition towards others, particularly strangers. For this reason, G-d had decided to destroy Sodom and its neighboring towns.
Sodom has thus been used by the Torah and our Sages as the symbol of man’s inhumanity and insensitivity to his fellow man.
One the most familiar references to the attitudes of Sodom can be found in the Talmudic classic Pirkei Avot, often referred to as “Ethics of the Fathers.” In chapter five our Sages cites a view that one who says, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” has exhibited a “characteristic of Sodom.”
We should ponder the meaning of this statement. Why is one who respects the integrity of another’s property lumped together with the most depraved people of Sodom?
One simple interpretation is that those who say “what is mine is mine” suggest that they would not part with their own property to help another. A person who thinks that his money and property are all his own will never reach out to help another with his resources.
If this is true then we might wonder why such a uncharitable person, whose behavior is reminiscent of the wicked Sodomites, would even be mentioned in Ethics of the Fathers, a treatise that was written for the person who aspires to be a chasid, defined as one who follows the law and wishes to go beyond the letter of the law.
The answer to this question can be found in the introduction to this statement. “One who says What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours..” It does not say, “One who acts” but “one who says.” This refers to a person who may have made this statement, but certainly does not act in accordance with it.
Occasionally we find people who act charitably, but may harbor less than ideal traits. One may actually contribute to Tzedakah and reach out with his resources to others, but nevertheless may be harboring Sodomite sentiments.
By saying “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours,” the person is in effect declaring: “I will give the poor person, and I want him to realize that I have just given him from that which is exclusively my own.” This “charitable” individual is actually attempting to extol the virtue of his brand of giving. “I am such a charitable person,” he is saying in effect, “I will even give my own possessions to another.”
Ethics of the Fathers teaches us how to not even entertain Sodomite ideas, even if one acts contrarily. Though one’s charitable actions are noble, one’s mindset may be closer to the Sodomite mindset.
The true ideal of giving is to combine the act with the thought that, in truth, nobody gives their own resources to another when they give Tzedakah. Rather, G-d has entrusted the giver of Tzedakah with money that rightfully should have been given directly to the needy person. G-d, however, decided to “entrust” this money with the giver in order to provide him with an opportunity to be His agent in sustaining the world.
Thus, our attitude — not only our actions — should reflect the belief that even “mine is yours.” Even what G-d has given me, is truly the possession of the recipient of my kindness. It originally belonged to G-d and will ultimately belong to the recipient. We are only the “middle men through whom the transfer is effected. To think otherwise is to think in the mode of the Sodomite people who could not countenance giving because they believed that G-d wanted them to keep it for themselves.
Our Sages describe the whereabouts of Moshiach as being in the wicked city of Sodom. Their intent was to describe Moshiach’s role as one who will remove the Sodomite attitudes that might have tainted some of our good deeds.
While “the deed is the essential thing,” Moshiach demands more of us; that we see things through the prism of Abraham and not the prism of Sodom; to see things from the perspective of the recipients of our charity and not from our own self-centered vantage point.
One of the rituals associated with the end of our meals is to wash our fingertips before reciting the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals. Originally, this was instituted to wash off any trace of the potent Sodomite salt that might cause blindness if we touched our eyes with the residual salt on our fingertips. On a symbolic level we might add, that as we come to the end of our “meal,” the repast of exile, we must remove even the slightest trace of Sodom. It does not suffice to act Jewishly but think in Sodomite fashion. We must also think Jewishly. Let us not allow the residual Sodomite ideas blind us, by preventing us to see the needs of others because we are so full of ourselves.
By removing the last trace of Sodom, we will be ready to recite the ultimate Birkat Hamzon, a prayer of thanksgiving to G-d for the ultimate salvation of the world with the imminent coming of Moshiach.