INSIGHT

5768 - #07

PURPOSE

Avraham Avinu’s classic confrontation with God in defense of Sodom is one of the most powerful episodes in the Torah. The man of chesed, loving-kindness, pleads before God to save this city, this city of evildoers, from destruction. The story would seem to be the ultimate expression of humanitarianism, of human caring. Avraham is pained by the death of any human being, even the citizens of this den of iniquity; thus he fights for their salvation from Divine punishment – so it would seem.

             The difficulty with this assessment of Avraham’s actions lies in its classic shortsightedness. Kohelet Rabbah 7:33 states: “Whoever becomes merciful when he should be cruel, will in the end become cruel when he should be merciful.” Mercy cannot simply emerge from one’s emotions. Mercy must arise from a thoughtful decision that recognizes all consequences. To be merciful when mercy is not proper -- mercifully freeing the offender because one is pained by the suffering of another, even the deserved punishment of a criminal -- allows the possibility for greater suffering for others at the hands of this delinquent. Sodom was noted for its despicable treatment of others, for its corrupt laws that ensured the suffering of the weak. To destroy Sodom, to prevent the people of Sodom from hurting others, in fact, may have even been an act of great mercy. Did Avraham not recognize this? How could he have stepped forward to defend Sodom and thus allow this evil to continue?  

             The language of the Chumash text actually seems to point to a different concern of Avraham’s. His argument is not for mercy but for justice and the assurance that the righteous will not suffer with the sinner. It could thus be argued that Avraham also clearly wanted this evil to stop even if this would demand the destruction of the city; he just wanted to make sure that no one undeserving of this punishment would suffer with the evildoers – a most noble cause as well. Was this, though, Avraham’s true concern or, rather, his argument for saving the city? While the language of Avraham’s challenge does, indeed, focus on justice, its context does seem to be a concern for the entire city, motivated by Avraham’s mercy. If Avraham’s concern was, in actuality, only the righteous, why not just request of God to save the righteous before destroying the city, just as God would do with Lot?

             Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bereishit 18:23-26 contends that Avraham’s concern may have been the pain that the righteous would have felt at the destruction of their fellow (albeit evil) citizens. Avraham’s argument, as such, was that, even if God would have saved the righteous and not included them in the general destruction of the city, it would still have been unjust to subject the righteous to the mental pain that they would have had to endure with the obliteration of the city and its citizens. As such, God could not destroy everyone in the city – righteous one and evildoer – for that surely would be unjust; but God, Avraham further contended, could also, in the name of justice, not destroy only the evildoers for that would still yield an inappropriate pain to the righteous. Yet what about the pain of those who suffered at the hands of the Sodomites and the pain that the righteous must also have felt viewing the terrible manner in which the people of Sodom treated others? Would the righteous not have also felt some relief in knowing that the evil perpetrated by Sodom was stopped forever? We return to our original query. Why would Avraham attempt to prevent God from destroying Sodom for, whatever Avraham’s humanitarian concerns, greater good would seem to result from Sodom’s destruction than from Sodom’s continued existence?

             Beyond the question of why bad things happen to good people, is the very perplexity of the existence of evil and suffering itself. Could God not have simply created a perfect world, such as we envision in Olam Habah, the Future World? The classic answer is that God specifically created an imperfect world so that we may perfect it and thereby earn our eternal bliss.1 The result is that suffering and, even, evil are necessary for only with the existence of imperfection can we grow and triumph over the challenges that we face in this existence.

             Viewed in this light, the destruction of Sodom takes on a further dimension; the very destruction marks a failure in humanity. As long as Sodom existed, there was a chance to triumph over evil, to change the nature of this city and its citizens and further the goal of a collective good. With the destruction of the Sodomites, it is true that a specific evil was removed from the world but at the cost of the very challenge of existence. This world with its suffering and evil exists so that we can transform it and create good from the weaknesses of existence. When we obliterate evil by simply cutting it out of existence, we have removed this imperfection but at the cost of the whole. With the destruction of Sodom, an infection was removed from the body of humanity. This was necessary for the body and removed the disorder but the whole is still damaged.  We could never again reach the ultimate goal of the perfection of the whole.

             Avraham wished for the ultimate triumph of humanity. This could not be reached by simply removing evil whenever it emerged. Humanity’s task must be to battle evil and suffering and triumph over it – ideally, not by removing the distortion but by transforming it into a healthy part of the whole. This Avraham knew and it would be in the furtherance of this goal that Avraham would charge his children.2 Unfortunately, there are times when humanity has fallen so low that the only possibility is to cut out the evil and accept the defeat of the ideal. Sodom was such a case – but Avraham needed to know for sure. His argument before God was that as long as there were righteous people in Sodom, as long as there were people who could affect positive change amongst the evildoers, the answer is not to destroy the evildoer. That is contrary to the very purpose of this world for the initial existence of evil is necessary to allow for the triumph of good. God’s answer was not simply that there were no righteous people in Sodom but that the absence of righteous individuals in Sodom actually demonstrated that Sodom was beyond redemption. The Sodomites had placed a wall around themselves3 barring interaction with all who could positively affect them. A righteous person could not exist in Sodom. Sodom allowed no room for righteousness, specifically the force of righteousness. Avraham, thus, had to sadly resign himself to the tragic fact that this imperfection of evil could never be transformed into good; it had to be cut out of existence. Our goal must be to not let this happen again.

. .

 

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

Footnotes

1 See, for example, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Da’at Tevunot which substantially deals with this theme and the significance of earning our share in Olam Habah.

2 See, significantly, Bereishit 18:19, the very reason why God discussed Sodom with Avraham.

3 See, further, Mishneh Avot 5:13 with commentators.

Nishma, 2007


 


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2006 NISHMA