Avraham's Prayer for Sodom

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHA

 

**************************************************************

In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

**************************************************************

 

AVRAHAM'S PRAYER FOR SODOM

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

A.        INTRODUCTION

 

Our parasha begins with the visit of three travelers to Avraham while he was recuperating from his painful circumcision.  Each traveler had a specific assignment: one came to announce the future birth of Yitzchak, one to destroy Sodom, and the third to heal Avraham.  Avraham waited for them outside, in the scorching heat of the desert sun.  In contrast to the people of Sodom, whose wickedness is portrayed through cruelty to guests and strangers, Avraham's kindness expressed itself particularly in hachnassat orechim (welcoming guests).  According to one opinion, Avraham even interrupted a Divine visit, forsaking an encounter with Hashem in order to receive lonely travelers on that hot day and give them food and water.  From here, our Rabbis taught that the act of hachnassat orechim is greater than the act of receiving the Divine Presence (Shabbat 127a).

 

When Avraham bade his guests farewell several hours later, "Avraham stood yet before Hashem."   Hashem had waited for him patiently.  However, the Torah shares what Hashem considered while waiting:

 

17 And Hashem said: "Shall I hide from Avraham that which I am doing;

18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?

19 For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that Hashem may bring upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him."

20 And Hashem said: "Indeed, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous.

21 I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto Me; and if not, I will know."

22 And the men turned from thence, and went toward Sodom; but Avraham stood yet before Hashem.

 

How would Avraham respond to the Divine plan to execute justice on Sodom?  Should he not respond instinctively with joy upon hearing of the impending destruction of his nemesis, the most successful metropolis in the area, which demonstrated to the world that self-centeredness and self-interest led to greater riches and wealth?  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik eloquently outlines what would comprise a rational, thoughtful reaction on Avraham's part:

 

As long as Sodom prospered, Abraham's doctrines, sermonizing, and preaching meant nothing.  One cannot preach goodness and kindness if malkhut ha-rish'ah, the kingdom of evil, is rich and powerful.  One cannot gain converts for an idea if its opponents, no matter how bad they are, prosper… An angel came to announce the birth of Isaac – in other words, the continuation of Abraham's heritage.  But Sodom's existence contradicts everything that Abraham has said. Abraham preaches equality, kindness, charity, hospitality; Sodom laughs and scoffs at these ideas…

And here the Torah tells us something important about Abraham.  If we had been in his place, we would simply have prostrated ourselves and thanked God for destroying the kingdom of evil so that our task would be simplified.  But Abraham pleaded for Sodom, knowing that its survival meant his own defeat.  He was ready to accept defeat in order to give Sodom an opportunity to reform and restore itself.  Abraham dropped his hatred for Sodom and his love for his mission.  He was ready to sacrifice his life and have his new Torah appear to be a total failure.  He was prepared to forgo his hopes and his vision for the future – just so that Sodom would not be destroyed.  This is hesed in the full sense of the word.  (Abraham's Journey, eds. David Shatz, Joel Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler [Ktav, 2008], p. 170)

 

B.        WHAT WAS AVRAHAM ASKING?

 

Let us analyze carefully the negotiations between Avraham and Hashem over Sodom's fate:

 

23 And Avraham drew near and said: "Will You indeed consume the righteous with the wicked?

24 Perhaps there are fifty righteous within the city; will you indeed sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?

25 Far be it from You to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; Far be it from You - shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?"

26 And Hashem said: "If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will forgive the entire place for their sake."

27 And Avraham answered and said: "Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto Hashem, who am but dust and ashes.

28 Perhaps there shall lack five of the fifty righteous; will You destroy the entire city for lack of five?" And He said: "I will not destroy it, if I find there forty and five."

29 And he spoke unto Him yet again, and said: "Perhaps there shall be forty found there." And He said: "I will not do it for the forty's sake."

30 And he said: "Oh, let not Hashem be angry, and I will speak. Perhaps there shall thirty be found there." And He said: "I will not do it, if I find thirty there."

31 And he said: "Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto Hashem. Perhaps there shall be twenty found there." And He said: "I will not destroy it for the twenty's sake."

32 And he said: "Oh, let not Hashem be angry, and I will speak yet but this once. Perhaps ten shall be found there." And He said: "I will not destroy it for the ten's sake."

33 Hashem went His way, having concluded speaking to Avraham; and Avraham returned unto his place.

 

Avraham's appeal for divine mercy on Sodom's behalf begins with a searing attack on the very possibility that righteous can suffer with the wicked.  Then the haggling over Sodom's fate begins.  In a script that seems lifted from a Byzantine Middle Eastern bazaar, the price for saving Sodom slowly drops from fifty, to fort-five, to forty, then thirty, then twenty, and then ten, at which point Hashem abruptly cuts off communication and, as it were, walks away.   We will discuss the subtle changes in terminology that occur during this exchange in the concluding section.  For now, we will deal with the apparent incoherencies in Avraham's questions, which are the focus of the following comment by R' Shlomo Dubno in the Be'ur:

 

We should be amazed by the inconsistencies in these prayers.  In the beginning (v. 23), he prayed that Hashem not consume the righteous with the wicked.  In the next verse, he requested that the righteous be able to save the wicked from their fate, even though he did not receive an answer to the first request.  Finally (v. 25), he repeated his first request.

 

What was Avraham requesting – justice for the righteous, or mercy for Sodom?  This inconsistency apparently led to Rashi's comment in verse 25:

 

Far be it from You – And should you answer that the righteous are unable to save their wicked neighbors, how dare you kill [innocent] righteous people!

 

Two super-commentaries on Rashi argued as to how Rashi understood the exchange:

 

Divrei David

It is clear that a righteous person should not perish with the wicked; for that for that is the letter of the law.  Avraham's only request was that the righteous serve as a defense for their wicked neighbors, and that required prayer.  But basic justice, that righteous are not punished for the sins of the wicked, did not require Avraham's prayer. 

R' Wolf

 Heidenheim

In reality, Avraham did not pray for anything except that the righteous not perish, and that it why he stated, "Will You indeed consume the righteous with the wicked?" [This was said] in singular form, for not even one righteous should perish due to the sins of the wicked. The second verse comes to explain this request: Perhaps there are fifty righteous within the city, which argues that obviously they should be enough to save the city.  But if they should not be enough in Your eyes to save the city from destruction, "Far be it from You to do after this manner," what Avraham mentioned in the previous verse, "to slay the righteous with the wicked."  Therefore, he repeated himself in the final verse, "Far be it from You - shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?"  [To paraphrase the question -] Even if we accept that the righteous cannot save the wicked, it is not justice that they should save themselves?

 

The Divrei David (attributed to R. David Halevi Segal, the author of the commentary the Turei Zahav [TaZ] on the Shulchan Arukh) argues that no prayer was necessary to protect the righteous – simple fair play and justice protected them.  Avraham directed his efforts towards saving Sodom as whole.  R' Heidenheim believes that Avraham sensed that the upcoming cataclysm would, like the flood several hundred years before, cause the destruction of all Sodom's inhabitants without discrimination between good and bad.    Fascinatingly, neither commentator suggests that Avraham was asking two separate questions, the approach we suggest in the following section. 

 

C.        TTHE INSCRUTABILITY OF DIVINE JUSTICE

 

The conversation is further remarkable in its success in distracting the reader from the fundamental moral issue Avraham began with – "Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?"  Avraham asked two questions of Hashem  where is the justice in punishing innocents for the sins of the guilty, and how many innocents would it require to attain atonement for society as a whole?   Upon arriving at the number ten, Hashem abruptly cuts off communication, as we read:

 

Hashem went His way, having concluding (Hebrew – kh.l.h.) speaking to Abraham. (18:33)

 

Several words in Hebrew mean to end or to complete.  What is the significance of the root word kh.l.h.?  In his commentary to Sefer Devarim, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv - the venerated Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin from 1840-1892) makes the following fascinating suggestion:

 

And Moshe concluded (Va-yekhal) saying these words to all of Yisrael (32:45):  … And the wording "And Moshe concluded" signifies [that Moshe was engaged in providing] explanations and interpretations of what he taught the people, and the questions multiplied until, finally, Moshe said, "Enough!"

 

In other words, the root kh.l.h. implies concluding -  not as a completion, but as an interruption.  Moshe could not have completed teaching the Torah to the Jewish people, for it is an endless as the sea.  Similarly, the description of the Shabbat begins "Va-Yekhulu – and the creation of the heavens and the earth was completed (Bereishit 2:1).  In reality, Hashem refrained from creating more, and Jewish thought teaches us that it is man's purpose to assist in its completion.  In our episode, we see that Hashem concluded the conversation abruptly, without returning to Avraham's original question.  "Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?" remains unanswered for, indeed, when punishment comes upon society, both innocent and guilty perish together.   

 

D.        AVRAHAM'S EDUCATION

 

Rereading the episode, we come away with the distinct impression that Hashem had orchestrated the entire encounter for the specific purpose of instructing Avraham in the ways of divine justice.  Let us look again at Hashem's opening words:

 

17 And Hashem said: "Shall I hide from Avraham that which I am doing;

18 seeing that Avraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?

19 For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that Hashem may bring upon Avraham that which He hath spoken of him."

 

For the first time, Hashem refers to Avraham not as an individual or the head of a family, but as the founder of a people – "Shall I hide from Avraham that which I am doing, seeing that Avraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation…"  Until now, the Torah has concerned itself with Avraham's personal righteousness; now, the focus is how Avraham will serve as the political head of a nation whose purpose it is to instruct the world in righteousness and justice.  Therefore, presumably within Avraham's hearing, Hashem speaks aloud – "Indeed, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous. I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto Me."

 

As we noted, Avraham immediately initiates the conversation, "Will You indeed consume the righteous with the wicked?"  It is a bold challenge.  However, it suffers from one deficiency; Avraham's challenge begins with the issue of personal justice – doesn't each person get what he or she deserves?  Only then is there an allusion to the fate of the wicked and how their destruction can be prevented due to the presence of the righteous.   

 

In contrast, Hashem is much more interested with the city than with the individuals.  The cities' behavior caused Him to investigate.  However, to bring Avraham to this understanding, Hashem also subtly changes the frame of reference of the discussion.  Avraham asks Hashem "to forgive the place for the fifty righteous within."  Hashem responds, "I will forgive all the place for the fifty."  In the next exchange, Avraham repeats the word all, but continues to place the focus on the righteous – "will you destroy all the city for the lack of five?"  Avraham's emphasis is the lack of five from the fifty.  Hashem does not word His promise as one not to destroy the city due to the lack of five, but instead, because of the positive presence of forty-five righteous men.   From here on, Avraham accepts the correction.  He thinks in terms of the saving remnant, and the effect that they have on others.  Like Hashem, Avraham begins to understand that justice is more than the sum total of individual acts of righteousness.  Now, the discussion is framed in terms of discussion of an entire city.  Justice for a city, or a nation, overrides strict justice for each individual; instead, what matters is the effect that these individuals have on others.  A community stands or falls together – one man of virtue is not sufficient. 

 

The Torah therefore emphasizes not Avraham's individual merits, but that "he will instruct his household."  To ensure that values are spread, its values require education and transmission.  The lesson could not be more timely, as Avraham and Sarah were just informed of Yitzchak's birth.  With Yitzchak's impending birth, Avraham will become not just a father, but a founder.  As such, he must learn to widen his view to see the divine perspective.