Local Government vs Sodom

Local Government vs Sodom

Mati Kirschenbaum

For almost a week now the election posters that are still hanging in many places have been reminding us of the frenzy of the local government elections. Many of us are still celebrating the victory of the candidates we supported; some of us must come to terms with the defeat of our favorite candidates or wait for the second round of the electoral battle. In our community there are probably also those who did not cast their vote, since “they do not trust anyone”, “one is as bad as the other”, or since “my vote won’t change anything anyways”. The high rate of those who do not participate in elections is nothing unusual. In this year’s elections voter turnout exceeded 50 percent for the first time since 1989. This is probably due to the fact that the current elections reflect the deep polarization of Polish political life, which makes it seem difficult to find common ground for agreement at the local level. That is why many of us decided to support a given electoral committee because of the values represented by the national political party linked with it.  Some of us decided to support electoral committees unrelated to political parties, such as various urban movements, hoping that they will change our towns and villages into better places to live.

This week’s parashat Vayera describes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – two cities which most certainly were not a good place to live in for those who hold dear the idea of social justice. Here is how prophet Ezekiel describes their transgressions:

“Only this was the sin of your [Israel’s] sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. In their haughtiness, they committed abomination before Me; and so I removed them, as you saw.”
(Ezekiel 16:49-50.)

Interestingly, the main sin of Sodom in the view of prophet Ezekiel seems to be its indifference to the injustice suffered by the underprivileged. Many commentators emphasize the fact that the beginning of our Parashat seems to deliberately contrast Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality towards strangers with the amoral behavior of the residents of Sodom, who wanted to sexually abuse Lot’s guests. According to these commentators the main sin of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah was the abuse of strangers and wanderers, of people who did not benefit from the protection enjoyed by the members of the local community.

Rabbinical tradition claims that contempt and abuse of the disadvantaged had become part of Sodom’s legal system. Among others Sodom’s law ordered those who had been wounded to pay their perpetrators for the wounds they had inflicted. Helping the weak and the poor was prohibited and harsh punishment awaited those who would not abide by this rule.

Thus Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed not because of occasional acts of violence towards the needy and the disadvantaged; their fate was sealed because of the laws passed by the local government.

Fortunately, modern-day local authorities do not have a mandate allowing them to punish the weak for their weaknesses. Nonetheless, they could still implement a policy de facto favoring certain social groups. For example, they could allow developers to carry out their building projects in urban green areas, they could cut the funds for Municipal Social Services Offices and for social housing as the first step of their “austerity measures”, they could design an explicitly car-friendly city  or close down Municipal Cultural Centers. None of these actions in and of itself makes a city uninhabitable. However, try to imagine a city in which access to green areas, culture, social services and public transport is provided only for the rich. Wouldn’t it resemble Sodom from the Book of Ezekiel and from Rabbinical literature? Wouldn’t it be a terrible place to live in?

Contrary to Lot, who had no influence over the norms of conduct adopted in Sodom, we – modern-day voters – do have a say when it comes to urban policy. It is up to us whether we monitor and react to those decisions of our city or district councils which directly impact our lives. This is undoubtedly more demanding than simply putting a cross next to a name on the ballot. But in the long run our active interest in the actions of our local government can make our towns and villages better places to live. May it be so – Ken Jehi Racon! And Shabbat Shalom.

Mati Kirschenbaum

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

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