Know that the judgment of Sodom was the result of the lofty level of Eretz Yisrael, which is God’s estate and it 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]
“And the people of Sodom were very evil and sinful against the Lord.” [Bereishit 13:13] We are all familiar with the story: the residents of Sodom were miserly and evil, refusing to accept guests, and guilty of murder and of illicit sexual relations. Therefore, God decided to destroy them by raining down sulfur and fire from heaven. On the simple level, it seems that the Sodomites deserved this severe punishment due to their sins, however, Ramban suggests a different understanding: it is by virtue of the level of Eretz Yisrael that the Sodomites were punished, had they behaved in the same manner in Poland or France, God would not have punished them in the same manner.
Astonishment at Ramban’s Comments
Ramban’s approach raises a problem. At first glance, Ramban seems to make two separate points:
One, the Divine judgment of Sodom was due to the level of Eretz Yisrael;
Two, Ramban questions the punishment of Sodom; if the purpose of the fire and sulfur was merely as punishment for the sins of the Sodomites, why was it necessary to leave Sodom in a permanent state of destruction, as described in the verse from Deuteronomy, quoted above? Would it not have sufficed to destroy Sodom for that generation alone? Ramban answers that this was done as a lesson for the Children of Israel, who are destined to inherit the Land; as a warning of the judgment which awaits them, should they repeat the behavior of the Sodomites.
There is no obvious connection between the two points, and Ramban should have presented the two points separately. Why does Ramban connect the two points?
Exposition of Ramban’s Comments
In order to answer our question and understand Ramban, we must understand the exact lesson God wanted the Israelites to learn from Sodom’s permanent destruction. If the Divine intention is to demonstrate to Israel that sinful nations are punished, the Israelites can see that there are other sinful nations which, unlike the Sodomites, have not been punished with destruction. Therefore, it was clear to Ramban that the lesson which God wants Israel to learn is different: He wanted Israel to learn the first point Ramban mentions – the severe judgment of Sodom is due to the level of Eretz Yisrael; had the same sins been committed elsewhere, the punishment would not have been as severe. Despite the fact that the Sodomites related to strangers among them in the disgraceful manner (see Rashi’s comments on the verse cited by Ramban), Sodom would not have been permanently destroyed if it were not in Eretz Yisrael.
Therefore, Ramban connects both points: the lesson which God wanted Israel to learn is that Eretz Yisrael requires a higher level of behavior; it is a Land which vomits out sinners.
This raises the question of why? Why should there be a difference in sins committed in the Land and sins committed outside her? Can we imagine that there would be a different law concerning a thief who stole in Petacḥ Tikva versus one who stole in Bet Shemesh? What difference does it make where a sin was committed? The act of sinning is certainly more important than the venue.
We believe there are two answers to this question. Here we present the first and will deal with the second in a later dvar torah.
Eretz Yisrael Feels Things
We are used to thinking that there are four levels within creation – inanimate, plant, animal, and speaker. Sand and stone, of course, are inanimate objects, incapable of feeling, breathing or speaking. Nonetheless, the Torah teaches that Eretz Yisrael is capable of vomiting, as the posuk (verse) says: “ולא תקיא הארץ אתכם בטמאכם אותה כאשר קאה את הגוי אשר לפניכם” (“And let the Land not vomit you out for having defiled it, as it vomited out the nation that preceded you”) [Vayikra (Leviticus) 18:28]. Not only is the Land capable of vomiting, but, similar to human beings, she vomits when something nauseates her. Idolatry or illicit sexual relations cause the Land to vomit; when there are behaviors within the Land which nauseate her, she vomits the sinners out. This is not necessarily as punishment. If a person eats spoiled food, he is likely to vomit it out, not as punishment for the food, but because the spoiled food is not good for him and causes him to feel ill. So, it is with Eretz Yisrael – when a particular sinful behavior upsets her, she vomits the sinner out. In essence, Eretz Yisrael is unique, unlike other lands, which are incapable of actions and feelings, she indeed has the ability to feel and she reacts in accordance with her feelings.
The Land Shook
Another example of Eretz Yisrael’s ability to feel and to act is presented by the Gemara at the end of Mesecht (Tractate) Sota [49b], which teaches that the prohibition to raise swine in Israel was instituted by Chazal (the Sages) in the aftermath of a particular event. During the civil war during the Chashmonaim Period, Hyrcanus and his army besieged Aristobulus within the walls of Jerusalem. Daily, the Jews besieged within Jerusalem lowered a basket full of money and the besiegers sent up animals for the daily sacrifices. An old man, who was well versed in Greek wisdom, suggested that Hyrcanus stop sending sacrificial animals into the city, since Aristobulus would not surrender as long as the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) service continued. Indeed, Hyrcanus accepted this advice and put a pig in the basket in place of a lamb. When the pig had been hauled half way up the wall, it stuck its claws into the city wall, and the Eretz Yisrael shook over a distance of four hundred parasangs.
Why did Eretz Yisrael shake? We would expect Aristobulus’ men within the walls to be shaken, not the Land herself. Does a pig have the power to cause an earthquake? Of course not; the story teaches that Eretz Yisrael is a living entity, with the ability feel things, and when a wicked deed is done within her, the Land reacts and shakes.
Ramban comments that in destroying Sodom, God wanted to teach the Children of Israel that Eretz Yisrael is capable of feeling; that she suffers when sins are committed within her and she vomits out the sinners. It is not possible to act wickedly within the Land and continue to live within her as before. God punished the Sodomites because they committed their despicable sins within Eretz Yisrael, which cannot tolerate such behavior.
During the High Holidays we pray “ובכן תן כבוד ה’ לעמך, תהלה ליראיך… שמחה לארצך וששון לעירך” (“Lord, give honor to Your nation, and glory to those who fear You … joy to Your Land and rejoicing to Your city”). While the simple meaning of the prayer is that God give join to the residents of the Holy Land and the Holy City, based upon what we have written, we can understand that the prayer is to provide joy for the Land herself, not only for her residents, but to the material land. Just as Eretz Yisrael can be nauseated by sins committed within her, she has the ability to experience joy when her sons return to her and fulfill mitzvot within her. “The attribute of goodness is greater than the attribute of retribution” [Gemara Yoma 76a].
May it be God’s will that we merit returning Eretz Yisrael to be joyous, as God wishes.