Monday, October 22, 2007

Vayera: The Sodomite Practice of Stretching or Amputating Legs

Credit for this one goes to my friend Eliyahu, for it is a retelling/restatement of something he mentioned to me on Shabbat.

There is a midrash about how the people of Sodom treated guests. As it states in Sanhedrin 109b:
Now, they had beds upon which travellers slept. If he [the guest] was too long, they shortened him [by lopping off his feet]; if too short, they stretched him out. Eliezer, Abraham's servant, happened to go there. Said they to him, 'Arise and sleep on this bed!' He replied, 'I have vowed since the day of my mother's death not to sleep in a bed.'
Thus, under the guise of hospitality, they either tortured folks on the rack or amputated their legs. This fits in well with Chazal's developed theme of Sodom as a place of perverted hospitality, and of wickedness masked as righteousness.

However, Eliyahu noted how it could be viewed in another way. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:9) reads:

ארבע מידות באדם: האומר שלי שלי, ושלך שלך--זו מידה בינונית; ויש אומרין, זו מידת סדום. שלי שלך, ושלך שלי--עם הארץ. שלי שלך, ושלך שלך--חסיד. שלך שלי, ושלי שלי--רשע.

Thus, this setting of boundaries, such that one should not intrude into your boundary and you should not intrude into theirs, is the trait of Sodom. This might be the letter of the law, but to a large extent society must allow for some transgression of boundaries, to allow other people to stretch out if they require the space at the moment. (There are practical applications of this which I will not get into here. I'm sure you can come up with your own in both the secular and religious sphere.) The Sodomite bed was of a fixed size for each person, and they made certain that the person fit exactly onto that bed. If someone naturally required more, they made sure he fit, and if he did not require that space, they made sure he used up all that space. And they did not care if doing so involved inflicting tremendous pain upon others.

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