Know that the judgment of Sodom was the result of the lofty level of Eretz Yisrael, which is God’s estate and does not tolerate men who commit abominations. The Land vomited out the entire nation (the Sodomites) because of their abominations, because they were the most evil, to Heaven and to creatures. Therefore, heaven and earth were desolated, and the land destroyed beyond repair for all time, since they had become haughty as the result of the goodness of the Land. The Holy One, blessed be He, saw that this is a sign for the Israelites who were destined to inherit the Land, as He warned them “Sulfur and salt have burned up its entire land! It cannot be sown, nor can it grow (anything), not (even) any grass will sprout upon it. It is like the overturning of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overturned in His fury and in His rage.” [Devarim (Deuteronomy) 22:29] There are (other) evil nations which sin greatly, yet God did not deal with them in this manner; however, the severity of Sodom’s punishment was because of the level of Eretz Yisrael, which is the palace of God.
[Ramban, commentary on Bereishit (Genesis) 19:5]
We previously suggested that Ramban explains that the destruction of Sodom was intended to present a message to Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) upon their arrival in their Land: that behavior within Eretz Yisrael must be different than that outside the Land. Behaviors which are acceptable outside the Land are not necessarily suitable within her, and behavior which does not draw harsh punishment outside Eretz Yisrael may result in exile from her. We explained that the reason for this is that the Land is not an ordinary inanimate body, but has the ability to feel and to act, vomiting out those who sin within her. This being the case, the behavior of sinners within the Land is graver than that of those outside her.
We shall now offer an alternate explanation of Ramban’s comments, based on the idea that the stringency of the punishment is related to the people who dwelt in the Land and her influence on them.
Behavior in the Palace
It is clear to any intelligent person that if he is invited to a meal at a royal palace or the home of a prime minister, his behavior must be different than that in his own home. If at home, one does not follow all the rules of etiquette, he will follow them in the palace. Being in the presence of royalty generates expectations concerning proper behavior.
Though we do not always pay attention to it, the fact is that when we are in Eretz Yisrael, we are in the presence of the King, as Ramban writes it is the palace of God. The Torah describes Eretz Yisrael as the Land which “עיני ה’ אלוקיך בה מראשית השנה ועד אחרית שנה” (“the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” [Devarim 11:12]. Being in God’s “home,” directly under His eyes, sins carry a heavier punishment than those transgressed elsewhere. Had the residents of Sodom committed the same sins, say in Britain, they would have not received the same severe punishment as they did for having sinned in God’s “home.”
Judgement of the Intermediate Ones Are Suspended
Upon reflection, we can say that there is an additional level to the point we’ve made, but we must first refer to the well-known Talmudic statement:
Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of R. Yocḥanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on Rosh haShana, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life; the thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed in the Book of Death; the fate of the intermediate is suspended from Rosh haShana until Yom Kippur; if they are deserving, they are inscribed in the Book of Life; if they are not, they are inscribed in the Book of Death. [Gemara Rosh haShana 16b]
Rambam codifies this statement and writes:
Just as a person’s merits and sins are weighed at the time of his death, so, too, the sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh HaShana. If one is found righteous, his (verdict) is sealed for life. If one is found wicked, his (verdict) is sealed for death. The verdict of the intermediate ones remains suspended until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his (verdict) is sealed for life. If not, his (verdict) is sealed for death. [Rambam, Laws of Teshuva 3:3]
Shem MiSh’muel asks why intermediate ones who do not repent have the verdict of death. The definition of “intermediate” seemingly is a balance between merits and sins, which does not allow a clear verdict. Thus, if the intermediate ones maintain their status, how can they be sealed in the Book of Death? The answer, says Shem MiSh’muel is that one who completes the lofty and holy Days of Repentance without positive effect, remaining in the same status he had at Rosh haShana, is considered as having sinned, and therefore, he has lowered his status, is no longer intermediate and his verdict is death.
The principle which Shem MiSh’muel presents is that at times one need not actively sin in order to be considered lacking. There are times when a person must rise above; something, the atmosphere, the time, the setting, must spur him to elevate himself. Remaining on the same level is problematic and descending is even more so.
Shem MiSh’muel ‘s principle applies to our discussion. Being in Eretz Yisrael is not merely being in the palace of the King, where the level of behavior must be respectful, but it must elevate one. Chazal (Our Sages) teach that the atmosphere of Eretz Yisrael invokes wisdom [Bava Batra 158b]. Being in Eretz Yisrael should make one more spiritual. Rabbi Kook zt”l writes “an Israelite cannot be devoted to and faithful to his thoughts, ideas and ideals outside Eretz Yisrael on the same level as he can achieve within the Land. The manifestation of sanctity, on whatever level, and purity exists within the Land, and outside her these traits are mixed with dross.” Rabbi Kook asserts that in Eretz Yisrael, and only within her, is there purity of thought and the ability to be faithful and devoted to lofty ideals.
Failure to Progress Within Eretz Yisrael
Combining Rabbi Kook’s thoughts with the comment of Shem MiSh’muel, we can understand that it is problematic for a Jew to be in Eretz Yisrael without progressing spiritually. It is comparable to one who is sent by his father to a prestigious university’s medical school. The father saved for years to be able to afford the tuition and is happy to see his dream realized. After six months, the father visits his son in medical school, only to discover his son has not been attending his classes. The son informs his father that he doesn’t have the strength to attend classes, so he spends most of his day sleeping. Naturally, the father is angry at his son, telling him how hard he worked to save enough money to send him to medical school and he, the son, is wasting everything. It is obvious that the son cannot respond “Father, even when I was at home I slept, so what difference does it make where I sleep?” Since the father worked hard to fund his son’s schooling, he has the right to expect that his son will invest himself in his studies.
Eretz Yisrael is not a university, but it is the place God put us in order to reach spiritual achievements, to serve Him in the best manner possible. If in Eretz Yisrael we behave in the same manner as we did outside her, we are comparable to the son, we fail to take advantage of the gift God has given us. If, God forbid, we also act wickedly with the Land, we fail to realize the purpose for which God brought us into her.
Summary – The Message for All Generations
Based upon our exposition, according to Ramban, the lesson which God wanted us to learn from the destruction of Sodom is composed of three aspects:
Firstly, we must appreciate that our Land is capable of feelings; she is hurt and disgusted by evil acts done within her and happy and joyful with the good done within her. We must see to it that there is “joy within our Land” (based upon the prayers of Yamim Nora’im) and not, God forbid, sink to the level where the Land vomits us out.
Secondly, we must appreciate that within Eretz Yisrael we must behave as within a royal palace, she is God’s palace. There are behaviors acceptable outside the Land which, if done within her, engender severe punishment – as befits acts of contempt done within the palace. We have the merit of having God bring us into His palace, but that obligates us to behave in accordance.
Thirdly, we must appreciate that we are in Eretz Yisrael for a particular reason. Eretz Yisrael elevates the nation of Israel, within her, thoughts are purer, traits are more wholesome and life is holier. Everything within the Land is loftier. We may not live in the Land and forget this. We must understand that one who lives in Eretz Yisrael without progressing spiritually is considered as having regressed. One who, God forbid, sins within Eretz Yisrael undoubtedly incurs a more serious punishment than one who sins outside her. Within the Land, the expectations are greater. God placed us in the Land so we may elevate ourselves and through that, the entire world, and this must be our constant aspiration.
May it be God’s will that we always be cognizant of the attributes of Eretz Yisrael, and thereby act in accordance with God’s expectations of us. In so doing, we will allow the Land to rejoice and the entire world with her.