Avraham's Goal: Salvation of the Wicked
by Yitzchak Etshalom
Our Parasha includes one of the most famous negotiations in history. In Chapter 18, beginning with verse 23, we find Avraham pleading before - and demanding of - God, who is the judge of all the earth, to act justly. What is this just action? Not to destroy the wicked with the righteous. Avraham then suggests that if there are fifty righteous people in the wicked city (cities?) of S'dom, that God should spare the entire city on their behalf. When God accedes to this demand, Avraham raises the stakes - if there are forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty - even ten righteous people to be found, God should not destroy the cities. Rather, He should bear the [sins of] the place on behalf of the righteous. As we all know, Avraham left the negotiating table when he reached ten...and the rest is history. There were less than ten (perhaps zero) righteous people in S'dom and the city was destroyed.
Avraham's position raises many questions, two of which I would like to address here. First of all, why is the only just action for God to take - from Avraham's perspective - to spare the cities? Why not send the righteous out - and then destroy? We find this Heavenly approach used in the case of Noach - why not ask for it here? On the other hand, if the presence of the righteous causes the injustice of destroying the city - sweeping away the good with the bad - then why did Avraham stop at ten? Isn't the presence of even one righteous person enough to justify staying the punishment? Wouldn't it be equally unjust to destroy a town of wicked people among whom one righteous man lived? Isn't the punishment of innocents, by virtue of their association and proximity to the guilty, unfit and unseemly for the Judge of all the earth?
In short - Avraham's tactic is difficult from both sides - if the presence of innocent, righteous people should render punishment unjust - why stop at ten? And if there is a way to save the righteous while meting out punishment to the wicked (e.g. by sending the righteous away in advance) - why not achieve justice in that manner?
I would like to suggest an approach that is based on a comment of R. Ovadiah S'forno (15th c. Spain). God's justice is not fully realized in the death of the wicked; as we see in Yehezqe'el (Ch. 18), God's ultimate concern is with repentance and return (*Teshuvah*). Avraham was not praying for the salvation of the righteous - it was the wicked people of S'dom who were the focus of his plea. If there are fifty righteous people there - there is good reason to hope that they will be able to instruct, persuade and enlighten the wicked populace regarding their evil ways. Is it your way, God, to destroy them together - before the one group has been given every chance to correct and educate the other group? God's response confirms Avraham's approach - If I find fifty righteous people, I will bear the entire place for them. In other words, I will tolerate the evil - not on account of the merit of the righteous, but because of the potential for change which their presence suggests.
As the negotiations tighten, Avraham is asking for much more - he is asking that God accept a far-fetched possibility, that ten righteous people might be able to save the city and to educate the populace. Why did Avraham stop here? Why not eight, six, four, two - why not one righteous person?
Avraham knew - from personal experience - the importance of community. He had needed to leave his own community in order to commune with God - and he understood the depths of courage required to do that. He well understood that one - or even a handful - of righteous people could never turn things around. As idealistic as we may be about our ability to educate, to "spread the word" and to draw people close to the Torah of Truth - the hard reality is that a holy environment, a sanctified setting and the safety of numbers is essential towards promoting spiritual growth. Avraham could not ask for less then ten, because less than ten is not a community (witness the minimum number for a minyan) - it is a handful of individuals.
Seeking the salvation of the citizens of S'dom, Avraham understood that there would need to be a community - small though it may be - that would serve as a shining example of righteousness and truth and that would then be a refuge for those S'domites who were thus attracted to the ways of truth and the paths of pleasantness.
Our challenge, within each of our local communities and throughout the world-wide
covenantal community of Am Yisra'el, is to create and maintain a holy and righteous community which will serve as an example for all those around us - and which will be a safe environment within which everyone can grow in righteousness and sanctity.
[you are also welcome to read the expanded version of this shiur, which can be found right here.]
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom.
The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles
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