This has been a truly tragic time for America, with another deadly terror attack in lower Manhattan — just a few blocks from the site of the Twin Towers.
But this is nothing new. Let me offer a sample of terror attacks the past few months:
- March 22, London, Parliament, six dead, 50 injured.
- April 10, Paris, Champs-Élysées, one dead, three injured.
- May 22, Manchester, England, 22 dead, 59 injured.
- June 3, London Bridge, seven dead, 48 injured.
- June 6, Paris, Notre Dame, one injured.
- June 19, London, Finsbury Park, one dead, nine injured.
In all, 46 terror attacks in Europe so far this year.
In the United States, 58 were killed and 546 others injured in Las Vegas on Oct. 1.
Before the shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killed at least 20 on Nov. 5, there had been 1,054 terror attacks in the world with 6,605 fatalities in 2017.
The attack in lower Manhattan left eight dead and 12 injured, and yet, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that most of us have just about forgotten about it already.
After 9/11, months later, even years later, we were still reeling from the horror of it all. But now it’s behind us a few days later — back to the old grind.
How is it that we have accepted terror as the new normal? How is it that our hearts have become so hardened to it all?
The Torah portion Nov. 4 introduced us to the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with this passage (Genesis 18:20): “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and their sin has been very grave.”
What was the nature of their evil, their sinfulness?
Rabbinic legends about Sodom and Gomorrah describe an area of unusual natural resources, precious stones, silver and gold. The Torah (Genesis 13:13) tells us that the entire plain was “well-watered … like the garden of G-d,” and it follows that the crops were plentiful and good. Every path in Sodom, the sages say, was lined with seven rows of fruit trees.
Eager to keep their great wealth for themselves and suspicious of outsiders’ desires to share in it, the residents agreed to overturn the ancient law of hospitality to wayfarers. This legislation later prohibited giving charity to anyone.
By doing that, they figured they would preserve an elite, upper-class community that would monopolize the profits the bountiful land offered without having to distribute any revenues to a lower class of people.
The Sodomites were not much nicer to their own. In fact, the Midrash (Genesis Raba 48) tells two tales of women who dared extend a helping hand to beggars and were put to death — one of them the daughter of Lot.
She secretly carried bread to a poor person in the street in her water pitcher. After three days passed and the man didn’t die, the maiden was discovered. They covered her with honey and put her atop the city walls, leaving her there until bees ate her alive.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a) tells us that to enter Sodom, one had to cross a river, so the Sodomites built a bridge over the river and charged an exorbitantly high fee to cross it. When one man tried to swim the river to avoid the fee, they charged him double, beat him up and ordered him to reward those who beat him because everyone knew the benefits of bloodletting.
The Talmud tells us that they provided guesthouses in their city with beds of a single standard size. When a guest came looking for lodging, they would make sure that the bed fit perfectly. If he was shorter than the bed, his hosts would stretch him out until he fit. Should he be too tall, they would hack off his feet.
All common human decencies were anathema to the Sodomites. This even affected Lot, who, thanks to being raised by Abraham and Sarah, still knew to offer hospitality to strangers, like the angels who visited him.
Even his sense of hospitality became corrupted. He was willing to give over his daughters to satisfy people’s sexual lust rather than hand over his guests to be “sodomized.” In this way, Lot began to take on the characteristics of Sodom, so he needed to be rescued before he became as depraved as they were.
The callousness of the Sodomites was infectious, based on this desire to always have more for oneself — more money, more land, more jewels, more servants, more everything — and an unwillingness to part with anything. No one cared about helping those less fortunate.
“What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours” was the ethic of Sodom and Gomorrah, according to the Talmud (Avot 5:13). At first blush, this might seem to be a sensible and harmless, but it places one’s focus solely on one’s own possessions and one’s own financial gain and ignores the basic demand of G-d that we care for one another.
As the stories reveal, this every-man-for-himself attitude leads to true evil.
But how did it happen that they became so selfish, which led to their becoming so evil?
I think part of the answer is that they began to see this selfish, evil behavior in a few people. After a while, they saw it again and again, until they got used to seeing it and began to accept it as a new normal. It didn’t take much longer for their hearts to become hardened to it and embrace it.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah should serve as a warning to us today. I believe that humanity is basically good and that people — each one created in the image of G-d — want to care for those in need.
But I also believe that the desire for wealth and security, which is a natural and understandable drive, can overtake us if we let our hearts become hardened to the plight of others.
So we must never forget what happened in lower Manhattan just a few blocks from the site of the Twin Towers. We must never forget what happened in London or Paris in the past few months or anywhere else terror raises its ugly head. And we must never allow our hearts to harden and look upon terrorism as the new normal.
It’s not normal! No, G-d forbid, for we are each an image of G-d, as were all the victims of terror.