In this week’s portion, Vayera, we learn about how HaShem destroyed the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorah. The Torah reports (Genesis 19:24,25):
“וַה’ הִמְטִיר עַל סְדֹם וְעַל עֲמֹרָה גָּפְרִית וָאֵשׁ מֵאֵת יְדֹוָד מִן הַשָּׁמָיִם. וַיַּהֲפֹךְ אֶת הֶעָרִים הָאֵל וְאֵת כָּל הַכִּכָּר וְאֵת כָּל ישְׁבֵי הֶעָרִים וְצֶמַח הָאֲדָמָה”
- HaShem caused sulfur and fire to rain upon Sodom and Gomorrah, from HaShem out of the heaven. 25. He overturned these cities and the entire plain, with all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the soil.
Indeed, these two cities represent the paradigm of ultimate evil, which we invoke whenever we want to exemplify depravity and evil. In addition to their extreme licentiousness their cruelty reflected itself in their legal system, which forbade, and severely punished, any acts of kindness. If a hungry person entered the city looking for food, no one was permitted to give him anything to eat. The rules were, let him die of hunger.
The Midrash informs us that Lot had a daughter named Plotit who was very beautiful and was married to one of the officials of Sodom. When she once saw a poor man dying of hunger in the city, she had mercy on him, and when she would leave her house to draw water, she would fill her bucket with food and give it to the poor man on the way to the well. Sodom’s evil people noticed that this poor man was living a little too long and concluded that someone must be slipping him food on the sly. They staked out observers who caught Plotit in the act. She was convicted and burned for her sin (!) of kindness. In her great pain and agony from her burning, she cried out to HaShem Who heard her cries, and determined that such cruelty needs to be stopped.
Another girl also had mercy on a poor starving man, and this time they smeared her body with honey and put her on the wall of the city where the bees and wasps stung her to death.
In yet a third incident, two girls met at the well, one of whom was starving. The other girl sensed her extreme distress and would also fill her bucket with food and then switch buckets with her friend. Once again, when she was caught, she was burned alive.
When this occurred, HaShem decided that He needed to wipe out these people and everything they stood for. This would serve as an example for all mankind that cruelty and the lack of kindness to one another will not be tolerated.
In an unprecedented move, HaShem decided to reveal to Avraham His plan to destroy Sodom. The Torah explains why (Genesis 18:18,19):
“וְאַבְרָהָם הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם וְנִבְרְכוּ בוֹ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְדֹוָד לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.”
- Now that Avraham is surely to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him, 19. For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of HaShem, doing charity and justice.
Because HaShem knew that Avraham would teach his children HaShem’s ways and perpetuate them, HaShem made Avraham the father of all the nations and the owner of the land of Israel. In Avraham lay the world’s moral, upstanding future. Because, therefore, the people of Sodom and their land that would be destroyed were under Avraham’s control, before HaShem would do so He inquired to see what Avraham’s response would be. HaShem also wanted to give Avraham the merit of going to bat for the people.
We see something very noteworthy here. The people of Sodom were the antithesis of Avraham and everything for which he stood. Avraham was the pillar of kindness in the world and merits the place in Jewish history as the person who perfected the attribute of kindness. He had a five-star hotel that was free to all, and he personally made sure that everyone received the best service possible. His lifelong ambition was to exemplify to the world HaShem’s characteristic of kindness. As the verse in Psalms (89:3) says:
“כִּי אָמַרְתִּי עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יבָּנֶה.”
- For I [HaShem] have said, “The world is built on kindness.”
HaShem created this world to bestow kindness on mankind. Avraham was so aware of HaShem’s kindness that he made it his lifelong goal to model HaShem’s kindness to the world, thus bringing people closer to the service of HaShem.
The people of Sodom, on the other hand, forbade acts of kindness and relished cruelty and sadism. In Sodom, one was not permitted to feed the hungry or host guests in their homes. The local hotel would provide a long bed for a short person and stretch him until he fit, and would provide a short bed for a long person and cut his feet off.
When HaShem revealed to Avraham Avinu that the people of Sodom had crossed the line and were marked for destruction, instead of saying, “It’s about time! Those evil people have been my arch-enemies forever,” Avraham argued and negotiated with HaShem to try to save them! What prompted Avraham to do that?
When HaShem told Avraham Avinu what He intended to do, Avraham asked himself, “Why is HaShem telling me this? What does He want from me?” Avraham correctly concluded that HaShem wanted him to pray for them, thinking that if HaShem wants him to pray for them, there must be hope. There was, of course, no hope, as the people were too far gone to be saved, but Avraham didn’t know that. The lesson is clear: HaShem wants us to pray for the evil people so they can have an opportunity to mend their evil ways.
Avraham responded (Genesis 18:23-25),
“וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּה. חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט”.
- Avraham came forward and said, “Will you also stamp out the righteous with the wicked? 24. What if there should be fifty righteous people in the midst of the city? Would You still stamp it out rather than spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25. It would be a sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous along with the wicked; so the righteous will be like the wicked. Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”
Avraham waged a full-fledged argument with HaShem trying to stop Him. His strategy was clear. There was only one hope. If there were righteous people who lived in the cities, perhaps they would create enough of a positive influence on the other members of their cities to stop their evil and turn the tide in favor of goodness.
On Avraham’s question to HaShem where he says, “Perhaps there are fifty righteous people in the midst of the city?” the Ibn Ezra comments (Genesis 18:26).
“וטעם בתוך העיר, שהם יראים את השם בפרהסיא”
“The reason they need to be in the midst of the city is because they need to be people who fear HaShem publicly.”
This means, that they defied the trend of their cities, remaining good and charitable despite their surroundings.
That the people tolerated openly righteous people indicated that they were not too far gone and that there was still hope for them. Avraham argued that with the presence of the openly righteous people he would be able to wage a war against city’s evil and perhaps turn the tide to good.
Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (Genesis 18:17) expresses the same idea as the Ibn Ezra.
“המכסה אני”. ראוי שלא לכסות מאברהם מדת טובו ולהודיעו שאם היה בין הרשעים איזה מנין צדיקים יש בו תקות תשובה לרשעים הייתי מטה כלפי חסד להאריך אפילו לרשעים אולי ישובו כי לא יחפוץ במות המת ושמבלי אין תקות תשובה יעשה בם משפט”
“Shall I hide from Avraham what I plan to do? It is appropriate that I don’t hide My attribute of goodness from Avraham. I will let him know that if there are among the evil people a certain number of righteous people, and there exists a possibility of repentance by the evil people, I will be inclined to bestow kindness and patience to the evil, perhaps they will change their ways, because I, (HaShem) don’t want the evil to die, unless there is no hope that they will change. Only then I will destroy them.”
Sodom and Gomorah were the major two cities out of five cities that created one metropolis. Avraham started by asking HaShem, “If there are fifty righteous people (ten per city) will you still destroy the five cities?”
HaShem responded, “I will not destroy them because of the fifty.” But there weren’t fifty. So, Avraham came back with, “Maybe there are forty-five (nine per city), and with You, HaShem, as the tenth for each city?” HaShem responded, “I will not destroy them in the merit of the forty-five!” But there weren’t forty-five either. Avraham persisted, and went to forty (and at least four of the cities will be saved), thirty, twenty, and then ten, so that only one city will be saved. In each instance, HaShem assured Avraham that if there were that number of righteous people in each city, He would not destroy it. But because there wasn’t even one righteous person in any of the cities, and they all had to be destroyed.
Avraham passed the test of showing care and concern even for wicked people who stood for the exact opposite of him, with flying colors, and in the meantime provided us with a very important lesson.
Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian זצ”ל makes a very important point about this scenario.
What if there were fifty, or forty-five or even ten righteous people and all or some of the cities were saved in their merit? After Avraham won the argument with HaShem, and saved them by the skin of their teeth, life in those city or cities would have continued as usual. The sinners, and even the righteous people, would have had no clue that they were on the brink of destruction and that Avraham had saved them because of the handful of righteous people in their midst.
This gives us a birds-eye view of how things look from HaShem’s perspective. When HaShem looks down at the world, so to speak, He sees the righteous people as special and a merit for the people of their city. We cannot know how many times HaShem may have wanted to bring some type of punishment upon a city, but then took into consideration the righteous people and because of them desisted.
The Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin (10:1) lists the people who because of their erroneous beliefs will not have a place in the world to come. One of those people is anאפקורוס , Apikorus – a heretic. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) defines an Apikorus.
“כגון מאן? אמר רב יוסף, כגון הני דאמרי מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו”
“What is an example of an Apikorus? Rav Yosef says, “It’s the people who say ‘What do the Torah scholars do for us? All that they learn and study helps only themselves.’ “
The Talmud is teaching us that although it may seem like the Torah scholars are involved only in their personal growth and pursuit of knowledge, the reality is that the holy life dedicated to Torah study that that they lead, benefits every Jew in the world especially the Jews of their city and community who support them both financially and morally. The Torah that they learn protects the entire city. The Talmud proves the point from what HaShem told Avraham (Genesis 18 26), “I will save the entire city because of them.”
The righteous people protect the city and community because they are not worthy of destruction and provide positive influence upon the members of their communities. This creates the greatest hope for the sinners to repent from their evil ways and to return to HaShem. We have no idea how many calamities the righteous among us have prevented.
In Noach’s generation, the rain first started as a drizzle. Noach had been warning of the flood for the entire 120 years that it took him to build the Ark. HaShem started the flood with a drizzle to give the people a chance to wake up and realize that what Noach had been predicting was actually coming to pass. Noach and his family boarded the ark, closed the door, and waited for the water to lift the Ak off the ground.
What do you think the people outside the ark were thinking? “It’s just a drizzle, no worries!” When the drizzle turned into a full-fledged storm, what were they saying then? “Wow, this is really a huge storm! I wonder when it will be over?” When it continued unabated for many days, what were they saying then? “This is a freak of nature! The weatherman didn’t predict this much rain!”
But, was it a freak of nature? Of course not! It was HaShem deliberately destroying them. We know this because we are told the story in the Torah from HaShem’s perspective.
When the meteors started raining down on the five cities of Sodom and Gomorah, what do you think they were saying? “Watch out! There’s stuff falling from the skies! Take cover! We’ve never seen anything like this! It’s a freak of nature!!”
Was it? Of course not! It was HaShem deliberately destroying them for their evil ways. We know this from HaShem who wrote it in His Torah. But, from their perspective, it was just one of those “freaky” things, and it unfortunately killed every last person and destroyed the entire place.
In December of 2004 there was an earthquake under the Indian Ocean that cased a tsunami with 100-foot waves that killed almost 228,000 people in fourteen countries. The pundits discussed if such a thing could happen off the coast of New York, and what the consequences would be.
Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon, שליט”א, Mashgiach of Beth Medrash Gavoha, in his lecture to the Yeshiva men said, “The pundits are debating whether such a thing could happen off the coast of New York. What is the question? Of course it could! What’s to stop it from happening? But there are many righteous people in New York, so HaShem will not bring such a catastrophe upon them. They are the protection for the city.”
We have seen this with our own eyes many times in the land of Israel.
During the Gulf War, when thirty-nine Scud missiles rained on numerous communities, only one person died from the direct hit of a missile.
When Arabs threw stones large enough to kill someone into the square in front of the Kotel, which was then packed with Kohanim and people who came to receive their special blessing on the holiday of Shavuot, no one was injured.
What stops the millions of Arabs who surround the tiny land of Israel from each taking a butter knife and walking into Israel and killing every Jew they meet?
There is a single answer to these and many similar questions. HaShem protects them because of the holy and righteous people that live in Israel and study Torah all day.
This is the Torah perspective on things. We understand that HaShem is in charge of the world and runs it as He pleases. In HaShem’s eyes, the presence of righteous people in a city is the reason to have mercy on the city for they will exert a positive influence on the others and help them to improve their actions and become better people.
This is what HaShem wants for us, and He is happy to be patient with us so that we can accomplish that goal.