Is there something so terrible that someone could do to you or to someone you care about that would make you think their act cannot be forgiven? Is there a sin so heinous that it cannot be wiped away by repentance? That is certainly an intriguing question with no obvious answer. The typical person might say that a thoroughly evil person, someone like Adolph Hitler, did things that could never be forgiven and should be punished by death. It’s the less obvious cases that provoke thought and debate.
In this week’s parasha, Vayera, we read of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, twin cities that were apparently so evil that they merited being wiped out by God. And that’s after God affirmed that he would never again repeat the wholesale destruction brought on by flooding the earth, a promise symbolized by a rainbow placed in the sky. What did the Sodomites do that could not have been addressed through rehabilitation and that merited their destruction?
One answer is that they were guilty of sexual depravity, a notion that is supported by the Torah text itself. The Sodomites demand that Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who is hosting two angelic visitors in his home, release his guests to them so that they can commit an act of sexual assault against them. Traditional commentators describe the Sodomites as lacking respect for others, an attitude reflected in their depraved behavior.
Other commentaries, ranging from Talmudic sages to early modern Torah scholars, take a surprisingly different approach by interpreting the sin of the Sodomites as xenophobia. Rabbi Naftali Hertz Landau, a 19th century German scholar whose work is known as “Imrei Shefer,” wrote the following:
The description of the Sodomites abject depravity can be seen as a proof text defending God’s desire to destroy them. The reason why the Sodomites barred strangers from their city was their fear that those foreigners might eventually displace the natives from positions of authority and leadership. They said to Lot, “Think of what would happen if we were to open our gates to more foreigners. Why, they might take over our entire city.”
The midrash also alludes to the same idea, when it says:
The Sodomites observed an ancient covenant in the city that no one take in guests. They said to Lot, “If you want to take in guests, if you want to welcome outsiders, build yourself a house elsewhere.”
I’m sure that Rabbi Landau and the Midrashic sages would have quite a bit to say about the immigration debate in the United States, and even about the Syrian refugee crisis, were they among us today. But they certainly seemed to think that the sin of the Sodomites was the total rejection of strangers, and that God was justified in wiping them out because of it.
Others comment that the sin of the Sodomites was that of selfishness. In Pirkei Avot, a rabbinic text that preceded the era of the Talmud, we find the following comment:
There are four types of character in people: 1) One that says, “Mine is mine, and yours is yours.” This is a typical type; some say this is a Sodom-type of character. 2) One that says, “Mine is yours and yours is mine,” is an unlearned person. 3) One that says, “Mine is yours and yours is yours,” is a pious person. 4) One that says, “Mine is mine, and yours is mine,” is a wicked person.
–Pirkei Avot 5:10
The passage contrasts four types of people, ranging from supremely giving and generous to entirely selfish. Concerning the entirely selfish person, the one who says “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours,” the person who cares only about himself and has no concern for anyone else, is described as “typical.” But other sages disagree and describe such a person as being like the people from Sodom. In other words, the great sin of the Sodomites, that for which they were destroyed without any chance for repentance or rehabilitation, was that of callous selfishness.
So what sin can never be forgiven? The sin of xenophobia? The sin of selfishness? The sin of turning one’s back on our fellow human beings and caring about ourselves only? It may not be that God will punish such behavior with the ultimate punishment, certainly not in the way the Sodomites were punished. But if we behave in that way, if we turn our backs on others with an utter lack of compassion and an absence of generosity of spirit, then we will surely have committed a sin whose impact may be irreparable.