By Rabbi Joshua Hoffman
In memory of my dear uncle, Dr. Heiner Hoffman, who passed away last week in New York at the age of ninety three. Dr. Hoffman, twin brother of my late father Joseph Hoffman of blessed memory, was a professor of microbiology at New York University for thirty years. He authored a standard textbook on the topic, as well as many important scientific research papers. Research that he did early in his career led to the development of bacterial rennet, the key element in the production of today’s kosher cheeses. May his memory be a blessing.
In this week’s parsha, we learn of the destruction of Sodom due to the immorality of its inhabitants. Not only did the inhabitants die, but the land itself was scorched through the rain of sulfur and fire from heaven. The Ramban points out that even though there were nations dwelling outside of Eretz Yisroel who were extremely evil, God did not punish them in such a harsh way. However, because of the lofty spiritual status of Eretz Yisroel, which is God’s palace, this severe level of destruction was rendered upon it. I would like to suggest that there is a particular feature of Eretz Yisroel that the people of Sodom lacked that generated its fate.
The Talmud in Nedorim (81a), cites a verse in Yirmiyahu (chapter 9) in which God says that the land was destroyed because the Jews abandoned the Torah. The Talmud explains this to mean that they did not recite the blessing over the Torah before learning it. Many commentators are troubled by this because the Talmud in Yoma (9b), gives different reasons for the destruction of the Temple. However, Rav Yaakov Emden, in the introduction to his Siddur commentary, points out that the Talmud here explains why the land itself was destroyed and desolate, not why the Temple was destroyed. The critical importance of the blessing over the Torah, in this context, explained Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, zt”l, is the declaration that God chose us from among the nations and gave us his Torah. When one makes this declaration before learning Torah, he is saying that the Torah is the essence of the Jewish nation and that, through studying it he is connecting to the rest of his people and helping to bring out the Torah's essence in life. When one learns without making this declaration first, his learning is done for himself, not for the benefit of the Jewish People. Eretz Yisroel has a special ability to unite the Jewish people. When Torah study becomes something selfish, that unifying factor is lost and the land is destroyed
The people of Sodom, as well, were famously concerned only with themselves. The Mishna in Avos says that their approach to life was, “What is mine is mine, and what is your's is your's.” As the Ramban notes, the prophet Yechezkel says that the key sin of Sodom was that they did not support the poor people. The rabbis tell us that they went so far as to legislate this approach to life, making it illegal, on penalty of death, to help the poor and needy. This kind of deportment was directly opposed to the unifying factor of Eretz Yisroel. Since it is God’s palace all of his creations need to be honored. Sodom, failing to do so, was destroyed to the point of its land being scorched, and served as a warning for future generations to develop a sense of unity in Eretz Yisroel.