In telling the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—part of this Sabbath’s Torah reading—the biblical text goes into much detail, but is remarkably vague about what sins provoked God’s wrath. While sodomy is the transgression most associated with this tale in the Western imagination, the rabbinic tradition tends to focus on other misdeeds. Helen Plotkin points to a midrash that depicts God being moved to action after a young Sodomite woman is killed by her fellow townspeople for surreptitiously giving flour to an impoverished friend:
This midrash paints a terrible picture: a young woman burned to death as punishment for an act of compassion. And her burning was not the work of hooligans. [The midrash] uses legal terminology—“judgment” and “case”—implying that the people of Sodom took the compassionate girl to court for sneaking food to a starving neighbor. She was tried and convicted under the law of the land. In Sodom, feeding a hungry person was a criminal act that carried the death penalty. The act that forced God’s interference was a legal one.
[A]other version of this midrash . . . takes the issue a step further. . . . According to this version, it is not the cry of the girl herself that turns God’s head. Now it is the judgment in her case that cries out.
For most people, the abuse of an abstract concept is not as emotionally compelling as the abuse of a little girl. But the idea that her treatment reflected the ethical stance of her society is truly horrifying. It suggests that in a society whose communal values are corrupt, it eventually becomes impossible for individuals to live ethical lives. Ethics and morality are not only attributes of individual people. Ethics exist or do not exist in a community. Whether individual people are good or bad, it is the collective values of the community that make ethical life possible.