Parshas Vayeira: The Merits of the Wicked of Sodom

In this week’s sedra, Parshas Vayeira, the Torah continues its narrative of the life – and trials – of Avraham and Sarah.  The sedra begins with the visit of the three angels (guests) to the tent of Avraham and Sarah.  From this chapter we learn about bikur cholim (visiting the sick), hachnasas orchim (welcoming guests), and that Hashem’s yeshua can come at any time.  The narrative continues with Avraham davening to Hashem to save the cities of Sodom and Amorah; the visit of the angels to the home of Lot; the destruction of Sodom and Amorah; Lot’s relations with his daughters in the cave; Sarah being taken by Avimelech; Yitzchak’s birth and Yishmael’s banishment; and the watershed event of Akeidas Yitzchak.  

Avraham becomes the father and founder of our nation for many reasons, which are seen through his different trials and tests from the time we meet him (end of Bereishis 11) to the day he dies (Bereishis 25:8): his faith in One G-d, his professing this faith to the world, his acts of chessed for others, his teaching others, his righteousness and courage, his negation and selfless devotion to the command of Hashem.  

In addition to all this, it is in our sedra that something astonishing occurs.  It has been twenty generations from Adam to Avraham, and for the first time since the creation of man, Avraham introduces a new concept to the world (and our nation): prayer on behalf of others that seems to challenge G-d’s Divine intention and plan.  

When Hashem told Noach that He was going to destroy the entire world, “Noach did all that Hashem commanded him to do”: he built the ark and saved himself and his family, just as G-d said.  

When Hashem told Avraham what He was about to do – in the words of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Bereishis 18:17-19), “G-d had said: I have revealed My plan to you (the angels); how can I keep it from Avraham?  After all, he, too, is none other than a messenger of G-d on earth, and it is right that he should know of My decision, so that he succeed in carrying out his mission” – Avraham challenged and negotiated with G-d, and prayed on behalf of the people of Sodom. 

Instead of accepting the Divine decree at face value, Avraham entered into the battle of prayer, in an effort to change Hashem’s mind (keviyachol).  This was a pattern that Moshe would adopt and follow in his rule as leader.  

In what merit does Avraham plead with G-d?  If there are fifty righteous in the city, will You not forgive for the sake of the fifty?  חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִםרָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְהֲשֹׁפֵט כָּלהָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּטIt would be a profanation to You to do such a thing, to kill the righteous along with the wickedShall the Judge of all earth not do justice!? (ibid, v.25).  If there are forty-five righteous, if there are forty, if there are thirty, twenty… and final negotiations: what if there are ten righteous men?  In each case, G-d said for the sake of the righteous He would not destroy the cities.   

Why, if there were fifty righteous amongst the wicked, would the wicked merit salvation?  Was it simply because the righteous carry the wicked, or do the wicked actually have a merit of their own which will stand for them in their defense?  

Offering a unique, powerfully relevant and timely perspective, Rav S. R. Hirsch writes, “G-d responds: If, even in a state such as Sedom, there are fifty righteous individuals who can publicly live a pure and upright life, and who can even stand up publicly as champions of purity, justice and humanity, then I will spare the sinners, not merely for the sake of the righteous individuals in Sedom – but בַּעֲבוּרָם (v.26), for their own sake, because of the very fact that these righteous still live among them; because of the very fact that the wicked still tolerate the righteous and allow them to remain.  This itself is sufficient proof that the measure of guilt is not yet full, the degeneration has not yet reached the lowest level.

“The progressive development of evil has not yet come to completion, as long as the wicked stop at mere derision.  As long as the wicked publicly tolerate the righteous, despite subjecting them to ridicule and insult; as long as the wicked do not prevent the righteous from acting; as long as honesty and the fear of G-d are regarded as foolish but not yet criminal, then the wicked have not yet sunk to the lowest possible level.  

“Only when they no longer merely ridicule the righteous, but bare their teeth at them; only when they begin to regard benevolence as a crime against the public welfare, and benevolence is prohibited, impeded and punished – only then has the evil reached its culmination, the level of ‘aino ma’ni’ach li’a’cheirim la’asos – he does not allow others to do’ (i.e.: he prevents others from serving Hashem).  

“Thus, (G-d told Avraham that) the sin of the Emorites was not yet complete (Bereishis 15:16), as long as Avraham and his household were permitted to build an altar to the G-d of truth and loving-kindness.  

“So too, the sentence of Sedom, was not sealed, as long as it was not clear that the evil had reached the ultimate depths of depravity” (The Hirsch Chumash, Feldheim, p.426-427, Commentary to Bereishis 18:26).

As we look at the world around us, Rav Hirsch’s words, first published one hundred and fifty years ago, reveal a startling insight into society today.  When honesty and faith become sins in the eyes of mankind, when righteousness is no longer tolerated, when morality is so corrupted that immorality becomes the new saintliness, when benevolence is considered a crime against the public welfare, and when champions of justice are portrayed, punished and vilified as the wicked amongst us, it is then that we know that society has reached the ultimate depths of depravity. 

As we continue to live in exile amongst the nations of the world, and pine for the ultimate redemption when ‘Hashem will be One and His Name will be One’ (Zechariah 14:9), we must continue to battle the insidious societal forces that surround us, and ensure that we live our lives in a way that G-d’s Name, the truth of Torah, and our Code of Law always remain our guide in life. 

,בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום


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