Still Relevant to Our Own Times
Rabbi Shlomo Vilk is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva.
The story could have played out differently. Avraham could have turned to God in bewilderment with the question – how could God NOT destroy Sodom? Where are You, the God who listens to all cries, when the oppressed and robbed cry out to You? How is it possible that Sodom still exists and God keeps silent?
Avraham could have prayed to the Almighty, demanding that this dreadful desecration of God’s name in the world be put to a stop right away; that a local flood wash away this ungodly city so that all the inhabitants of the world know there is a God who rules the world.
But our story is quite different. Avraham demands justice – not for the victims, but for those who have distorted justice. He firmly believes that Divine justice must discern between the righteous and the wicked; that the neighbor of the wicked man must not be punished – although woe to him who stands there in silence watching the injustice. Avraham expects the Judge of the World to show compassion for all, for the simple reason that there still are a few good people about. And a few good people always change the picture if one only believes in them.
We all know what happens at the end: God destroys Sodom and the surrounding cities. However, we are still left with something, and that something is Avraham, the defender of the wicked, who is not afraid to confront God Himself. Ultimately, the Judge of the World is convinced that even the wicked of the world deserve a fair trial, and even some compassion. Avraham asks God not to view those who have gone astray as representative of society at large; rather, God should focus on the righteous – for they give the truest reflection. It is not the murderers, the corrupt, the despicable that require scrutiny; rather – the few individuals, the quorum of good people in whose merit the world (including the wicked) exists.
If the story had played out differently and Avraham had prayed for Sodom’s destruction, we would not be here today reading these words of Torah. Instead, we would be filled with sacred fury and pray that the world be demolished in the name of the all-consuming Divinity.
If the story had taken a different turn, the Jewish descendants of Avraham would not be known for their kindness, compassion and humility; rather – they would be people consumed with hatred, fear and violence.
But the Jewish story has always been different. We are a people that even expressed gratitude to Pharaoh for “hosting” us in Egypt. We blessed the Caesar every Sabbath. We have always known that hatred and fear are traits that characterize the Gentiles; we, on the other hand, seek justice for all the inhabitants of the earth. Sometimes this justice is a distortion of the natural order of things, but we still prefer it to revenge and coarseness of spirit.
We have always visited the sick, both non-Jews and Jews; we have always given charity to the poor of the nations just as we have given charity to our own people because we have always known that the compassion of the Lord is upon all his creations, and peace is more powerful than fear and wickedness (Maimonides, Laws of Kings, Chapter 10). We were trusting and childlike, so much so that even if the poor and the sick we visited killed our people, we continued to believe that there is a better way: if only we behave better and show more faith, we may be able to find hope among the righteous of the nations. We may have been naïve and powerless, but because we believed in the good of mankind, we returned to Zion and to Jerusalem.
But sometimes voices of fear rise up from among us, fear that stems from the evil around us. And when our reality is filled with so much aggression and apprehension, people stop seeing the good; people no longer seek to do justice in Jerusalem; people may even volunteer to serve God with love so long they can avenge the wicked. In such case, Sodom may come to defeat Avraham and turn his descendants into a people driven by violence, hatred and fear; a people who no longer believes in the existence of good, but only await the day when things will be just the way we want them to be.
Indeed, one cannot show any sign of weakness in the Middle East. Nor can one be afraid of fighting and exhibiting strength. However, we know better. Avraham defeated Sodom by praying for the people of Sodom. The battles against evil may be fought on the battlefields, but the war is won by conquering hatred and giving hope. “Hearken to Me, you that follow after righteousness, you that seek the Lord; look unto the rock whence you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence you were dug. Look unto Avraham your father, and unto Sarah that bore you; for when he was but one, I called him, and I blessed him, and made him many.” (Isaiah 51)