Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
Parshat Vayera opens with the story of three angels who come to visit Avraham, who runs out to greet them despite the pain he is in, and despite the heat wave that occurred on that day. After a lavish meal, the angels inform him that his wife, Sarah, would give birth to a son, who would be named Yitzhak. Later, the text states that Hashem is on the verge of destroying the city of S’dom.
The Torah stresses the reason that Hashem felt it necessary to tell Avraham what would occur in the near future: “And Hashem said, “Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am doing?” (Gen. 18:17) Is it fair of me to conceal my plans from Avraham? After all, “… Avraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed in him.” (v. 18) In other words, Avraham is supposed to be the one through whom all of the nations of the world will be blessed. If so, Hashem couldn’t possibly hide any plans to punish any of those nations.
Far from sufficing with this statement, the Torah adds an explanation for why Avraham was chosen: “For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of Hashem to perform righteousness and justice…” (v. 19) Yet isn’t this an odd place for this verse? After all, the Torah could have explained earlier why Hashem chose Avraham. Why did it need to state the rationale for this choice here, just before S’dom is destroyed?
It turns out that the Torah wishes to stress that Avraham is the complete opposite of S’dom and its culture. Avraham is a man of kindness, justice and charity, while S’dom is the antithesis, and as such, doesn’t deserve to exist. The underlying assumption of this verse is that Avraham, a charitable man who champions justice, should agree to S’dom being destroyed, because S’dom embodies the characteristics anathema to Avraham.
With this in mind, Avraham’s prayers on behalf of S’dom become even more puzzling. After Hashem tells him that the cry of S’dom and Gomorrah has become great, and their sins have become very grave, Avraham approaches Him, saying “Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the midst of the city”. And so what if there are a few righteous men in the city? Does this in any way justify the suffering of the poor and the weak, who languish under the prevailing cruelty of S’dom? Why was Avraham so sure that the destruction of S’dom is such a great travesty, so much so that he uses the word “Halila” (“far be it”) twice – “Far be it from You to do a thing such as this, to put to death the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should be like the wicked. Far be it from You! Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?” (v. 25)
We have already mentioned that Avraham is a man of charity and justice, and that this is why he is chosen by Hashem. He now uses this status to challenge Hashem’s actions. The truth, however, is that this is exactly what we don’t understand. Is it right to allow tyrants to wreak havoc on society after saving a select few righteous individuals?
It turns out that Hashem agrees, in principle, to Avraham’s proposal, and responds that if those fifty righteous people exist in S’dom, He would not destroy the city. Alas, there were no such fifty righteous people. If so, what is the guiding principle behind the question of whether the annihilation of a city could be justified? Does it make any difference whether there are fifty people, thirty people, or whatever? After all, a settlement is judged according to the actions of the majority of its inhabitants.
Maimonides comments on this saying that “a man whose vices outnumber his virtues immediately dies in his iniquity..” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 3:2) The same applies to society and our communities: “so too, a country whose sins are great is immediately destroyed, as it is said, ‘the cry of S’dom and Gomorrah is great’.” (ibid.) What positive effect could these few righteous people have on life in the city?
If we revisit what Avraham says, we can glean some new insights. Avraham is not asking whether there are fifty righteous people in the area. The Torah stresses that “…perhaps there are fifty righteous people in the city”, and later, continues with “for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it”. This has nothing to do with numbers. The main issue concerning Avraham is whether all hope is lost, or if there was hope for improvement.
If righteous people were to live in the city but wield no influence on what happens in the city, either because they have isolated themselves, or because of other difficulties they face, Avraham would understand that there was nothing left to do, and stop pleading on the city’s behalf. However, if there were good people in the city who lived within it, people who care about what happens in the city and struggle to have an impact on its character, the city does deserve to exist. A person or community is also assessed for future potential. They aren’t simply judged for past events.
Often, the fate of a society or a community is in the hands of a select few individuals who take on the responsibility of being agents of change, while assuming the risks stemming from such a choice. While there were a few people in the city – namely, Lot and his family, who were worthy of saving – this wasn’t enough to save the city. This is because they weren’t able to bring any positive changes to the community in which they lived. This was S’dom’s test, and it is also the test facing every community and society. Will we merit to find some individuals, few as they may be, who are ready to take on the challenges presented by living in a community and a society?