Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
Our Torah reading, Vayera, begins with three angels paying a visit to Abraham as the patriarch was recovering from his circumcision, during which time one of the angels reports that God is about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Curiously, the Torah stresses that God feels a need to tell Abraham what will happen: “And God said, ‘Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing?” [Gen. 18:17].
After all, as next verse tells us, “Abraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed in him.” If Abraham is the person in whose merit all nations will be blessed, no plan to punish any nation can be concealed from him.
The text goes even further, providing an explanation for why Abraham was chosen: “For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the God to perform righteousness and justice…”
This verse appears out of place. The Torah could have explained earlier why God chose Abraham. Why introduce the reasoning for the decision here, of all places, just before the destruction of Sodom?
The Torah does this to emphasize that Abraham is the antithesis of the culture of Sodom and Gomorrah. While Abraham is a man of justice and righteousness, Sodom and Gomorrah are anything but. Ostensibly, this verse contains an expectation that Abraham would consent to Sodom’s destruction.
If so, it is quite puzzling that Abraham prays for Sodom! Why does he do this? After God tells him that “the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great”, and “their sin has become very grave” [ibid. v. 20], Abraham proposes a compromise: “Perhaps there are 50 righteous people in the city!” [ibid. v. 24].
What difference does it make how many righteous people there are in the city? Would their presence justify the continued suffering of the poor and the weak, preyed upon by Sodom’s evil ways?
Why was it clear to Abraham that the destruction of Sodom was so great an injustice that it warranted repeating the Hebrew word “chalila” (roughly translated as “far be it”) in his subsequent entreaty? “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?” [ibid., v. 25].
Is it right to save a few righteous people, but in so doing, allow evildoers to continue spreading mayhem and depravity? In effect, God agrees, in principle, with Abraham, and states that if 50 righteous people can be found among the Sodomites, he would spare the city.
If so, what is the guiding principle behind the justification for obliterating a city? Should a city not instead be judged for the actions of the majority of its residents? Maimonides (Rambam) writes: “…a country whose sins are greater than its virtues perishes immediately, as it is stated, ‘…the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great…’” [Mishneh Torah, Hil. Teshuva 3:2].
If so, what benefit would just a few righteous people living there bring to the city?
If we read further into what Abraham says, we emerge with a new insight. Abraham is not asking whether there are fifty righteous people in the area. The text emphasizes the words he used: “Perhaps there are fifty righteous people in the city”, and later, he states: “… for the sake of the fifty righteous people in the area”.
This is not a question of numbers. The main question Abraham grapples with is whether the cause is hopeless, and whether there is a chance of salvaging anything.
If righteous people live inside the city but have no influence over what occurs there, either because they cloister themselves off from the rest of society, or because of other difficulties, Abraham would understand that there is nothing left to do, and desist.
If, however, there are good people active in the city and promoting justice and righteousness; who genuinely care about what happens in the city; and who wage battle to determine its character, the city has hope, and thus a right to exist.
A person and a community is judged for its potential, not for the events of the past. The fate of a community or society often depends on the actions of a select few who are prepared to take on the risks and responsibilities that come along with this decision. Even if there were a few individuals worthy of being saved – namely Lot and his family – they were unable or unwilling to bring about positive change in the city.
This is not just a test for Sodom and Gomorrah. All communities and societies are similarly tested. Will there be certain people, however few they may be, who are prepared to take on the challenges that life within a community and a society sends their way?