Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 7 November 2020 / 20 Heshvan 5781

The Tzaddik Missing from Sodom

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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G-D deems Avraham worthy of being privy to His verdict regarding Sodom. And while he tries with all his soul to fathom the depths of G-d’s judgment, there is one question that gnaws at him. It is not the question — as may be misunderstood from a superficial reading of the text — of why G-d would punish the righteous along with the wicked. Avraham has not the slightest doubt that the innocent will be saved from calamity — even the thought that it might be otherwise would be a defamation of G-d’s name. It would be a profanation for You to do such a thing, to kill the righteous along with the guilty, Avraham declares. Even if there is complete annihilation, Avraham is certain that any innocent person — even one in a million — would be saved.

What, then, is his entire negotiation with G-d? Will You save the city for 50 righteous people? 45? 40? ...10? And moreover, if Avraham was certain that no innocent man would perish, what is the meaning of his opening question, Will You also sweep into ruin ( tispeh) the righteous along with the wicked?

Avraham knows the nature of the righteous. He knows how he would feel were he to stand in the place of the individual who merited saving himself from destruction that befalls the rest of the community. Anyone might experience survivor’s guilt, but a tzaddik’s pain in witnessing the destruction of his surrounding community is far greater. Avraham imagines that, had he been living in Sodom, he would have spared no effort and would have worked unceasingly to improve his fellow citizens who had deviated from the path. He would have suffered agony over the loss of every soul he had hoped and worked to save.

Avraham’s question to G-d is this: Shouldn’t the pain of the righteous, in witnessing the tragic plight of their neighbors, be taken into consideration? Should the righteous also be swept into this ruin, as tormented witnesses? Isn’t this consideration strong enough to bring G-d, for the sake of the righteous, to spare them the unbearable anguish — to pardon the whole community?

We see that Avraham regarded the salvation of the whole community as the reward of the righteous who share in the suffering of the community. The tzaddik whom Avraham imagines in Sodom does not look on the moral ruin of his fellow countrymen with apathy. He does not isolate himself and say, What have I to do with others’ troubles? I have to spare my own soul. Such a person would not merit the salvation of the entire community on his behalf, since the fate of the community is essentially, according to his own thinking, not his concern. If he had already abandoned them and separated himself, then their suffering and destruction do not touch his heart. He may even feel satisfaction at having escaped the harsh judgment by virtue of his seclusion.

Not so Avraham’s tzaddik — whom he describes as dwelling “in the midst of the city.” For that tzaddik — who lives connected with his environment and never ceases to teach and hope and aim for its rectification — the community would be saved.

  • Sources: Commentary, Ber. 18:23-25

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