In Parsha Vayera, “the LORD said (to Avraham), ‘The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.’” (Bereishit 18:20-21) Avraham, then proceeded to plead on behalf of the people of Sodom, “What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Bereishit 18:23-25).
There are a few interesting details to note here. Hashem needed to, “go down to see” if the people of Sodom were really misbehaving. Hashem is all knowing, without question. Why then did He need to go down to check? Well, because Hashem is in fact merciful and just! He “distances” Himself from sinners so that He is not so sensitive to their actions. This allows the sinner to feel Hashem’s distance, which allows them to feel a yearning for Hashem’s closeness and thus aspire to do teshuvah.
Now, contrary to popular conception, it is not so straightforward that Avraham pleaded on behalf of Sodom. Let’s start from the beginning, Avraham was well aware of Sodom’s iniquity. Sodom lived by the mantra of what is mine is mine and what is your is yours. Doesn’t seem so evil, does it? In fact, it seems like a neutral trait. However, some of our sages rule that this is the trait of the wicked. What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours is the epitome of narcissism, self-centeredness, self-obsession; the defining traits of Sodom. Here are a few examples: Sodom went so far with this concept that they did not allow tzedakah or even hosting guests. One could not share what was their own. They would stretch a guest’s body if they were too small for the bed, or they would cut off a limb if one was too long for the bed. A more famous example is that of sodomy. One who engages in homosexuality is satisfying their own selfish desires without the ability to give. How can they give? What can they give? They desire such and such pleasure, so they take it; it’s all about them and what they desire. They cannot go beyond what they desire; they are slaves to their desire for a relationship that does not have the ability to bring life, an infinite world of its own, into this world. The intentional act of coming together with one’s spouse to bring life into this world is the most selfless act a human being can do, for they give of themselves to a whole new life. The people of Sodom were the exact opposite of this; they could not give of themselves, thus, they were known by their most immoral act, sodomy. The sodomites believed: my pleasure and desire is mine, and your pleasure is yours, let’s all fight our way to establish whose pleasures will dominate. And so, their amoral society merited to be destroyed…all of it!
Perhaps all of Sodom needed to be destroyed because there literally wasn’t one righteous person living in it, but perhaps we can also dig deeper. Living by the mantra of what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours is no different from what many subscribe to today: live and let live, do whatever makes you happy. That’s impossible! One’s actions affect society around them, there is no such thing as “you do you” and expect it not to affect anyone else. The citizens of Sodom were so absorbed in themselves that they didn’t even realize how they pulled each other down as they stepped all over one another. All of society was infected.
Why Avraham Pleaded for Sodom?
Is it for these evil people that Avraham was pleading? Was he pleading for Sodom? Not exactly; he was pleading for the righteous, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike” (Bereishit 18:25). Avraham was concerned that the righteous would suffer the same punishment as the evil. This would degrade righteousness in the eyes of the world, and as such make a mockery and diminish the value of those who follow G-D’s ways, G-D forbid.
Avraham understood the concept of collective punishment. Society can reach a point of evil in which all of society must be taken down, and unfortunately, many times there is innocent collateral in such a case. Very often, the innocent collateral are the righteous people. They bear the grunt of the world’s punishments; not because they merit it, G-D forbid, but because they are the only ones who are connected to the gravity of the circumstances that they are found in. The world rests on their shoulders. Avraham understood that Sodom was corrupt to the point of no return: the whole thing had to go; there was no grey area, so he prayed that all of it be spared. Why? As we discussed before: for the sake that righteous people so that righteousness is not lumped in with evil.
Essentially, had Hashem listened to Avraham, thousands of evil people would have lived and likely continued their disgusting ways for the sake of keeping a few innocent, righteous people alive. Is that fair? Well, that depends on the circumstances. Had Hashem commanded Avraham to slay the city, it would be considered a Milhemet Mitzvah, and so the simple answer would be yes, the whole city would be slayed unless someone expressly pledged their allegiance to Hashem and joined Avraham. Besides perhaps that one-off case, according to the laws of a Milhemet Mitzvah, everyone goes. There could be no pleading done in the case of a Milhemet Mitzvah.
However, this was not a Milhemet Mitzvah; Hashem did not command Avraham to slay the city of Sodom; rather, He was informing Avraham of His judgement and sentence for the city of Sodom. This brings us to the second circumstance: a court. The rules that apply in war do not apply to a court. The Rambam penned the famous saying, “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” Perhaps, this will help us better understand how Avraham approached the case of Sodom. The question arises, is it really a good thing if thousands of murderers are released? No, absolutely not. Torah law makes it clear that if one is proven to have committed murder, their punishment is death; anything less is a sin, not obeying Hashem’s command. Then what does the Rambam mean? Perhaps what the Rambam is saying is that if a thousand evil criminals need to be sentenced to death at the expense of sentencing even one innocent person to death, then it is better to release everyone than to sentence the guilty together with the innocent. In the case of Sodom, we do find such a dilemma, in which the innocent, assuming there was someone innocent, could perish with the guilty.
In an earthly court, if both the guilty and the innocent are sentenced to death, then yes, the guilty would be brought to justice, but the judgement for the innocent would be desecrating Hashem’s justice, a Chillul Hashem, no less. We do not believe in utilitarianism: the belief that if an action benefits the majority of people, even if it’s at the expense of a minority, then it is moral. Such is not the case.
Thus, Avraham pleaded in the heavenly court for the righteous people to be spared, which on a practical level meant that he knew that he would be saving the evil Sodomites. Avraham was not ready to cheapen righteousness by letting it be destroyed together with evil. As a result, Avraham ultimately showed chesed even to the evil people of Sodom. As we know, however, Hashem ultimately destroyed all of Sodom nonetheless.
In this same parsha, we find a diametrically opposed reaction from Avraham some 38 years later. Hashem tells Avraham, “‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.’ So early the next morning, Abraham saddled his donkey and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him” (Bereishit 22:2-3). Avraham, the epitome of kindness, who knows that by pleading for the righteous of Sodom, he would be saving evil, doesn’t say a word in defense of his son, not a peep! Where’s the kindness, where is the love? Is it not more difficult to plead on behalf of Sodom than it is on behalf of one’s own son? Avraham didn’t even want to send his other son, Ishmael, out of the house. And here we have Yitzhak, the one chosen to fulfill Hashem’s promise to Avraham. What does Avraham do? Avraham just saddles up his donkey, takes his two servants and his son, and goes to where Hashem tells him.
It seems to be that even a slight tinge of ego could be forgivable…or would it? Aha! That’s the issue! Yitzhak was Avraham’s key to greatness. Hashem wanted to know that Avraham is not serving Hashem for the rewards, but that he was serving Hashem because he was truly a servant of Hashem. The rewards of the covenant were an expression of Avraham’s relationship with Hashem, not the relationship itself.
You see, back in those days, sacrificing one’s children was the norm, G-D forbid. Hashem commanding Avraham to sacrifice his son was not something unique; most of the people in that region claimed that their pagan deities instructed them to sacrifice their children. However, I am sure that if an idol worshipper was told that through their descendants their name will be in the books for eternity, and then this same idol worshipper is told to sacrifice the son though which this promise would take place, the idol worshipper would think to himself, No, why should I give up my path to fame and glory. I am keeping this one, I like the promise I was given. A different child, sure I can kill, but for this one I will suppress my bloodthirst. Hashem wanted to know that Avraham was in it for real, he did not want Avraham to treat his son as a tool for his personal greatness. And Avraham understood this lesson very well: “And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son.” Avraham knew that the covenant could have ended right there, he was not ready to use his son for personal glory; it was not about him or his greatness. Avraham was ready to serve Hashem with every fiber of his being.
Yitzhak and Sodom: Why did Avraham Act So Differently
In the meantime, a very interesting dynamic took place. Let’s go back to the story of Sodom. In Sodom, Avraham showed mercy towards the evil. Yes, for the sake of the righteous, but he understood very well the logical conclusion of his actions. If most righteous people throughout history had seen what was happening in Sodom they would have likely been so disgusted that they wouldn’t even have taken a moment to think that there could be a drop of righteousness in that evil city. Yet, Avraham had the insight to think about that drop of righteousness that may have existed there. His whole entire life was defined by chesed: mercy and kindness. For this drop of righteousness, he was ready to defend the whole city.
However, with the sacrifice of Yitzhak, Avraham did a complete 180. It seemed like Avraham’s chesed was put on hold for that moment, and perhaps it was; in fact, perhaps that’s what Hashem needed. Hashem wanted to see if Avraham’s defining trait of kindness would overpower his ability to bend his ego, his character, and his conscience to G-D’s will. We all have an intuition, but what if our intuition runs contrary to G-D’s will? After all, there are plenty of things in the Torah that may seem counterintuitive and make us uncomfortable. The Jew must be able to bend himself to Hashem’s will and not distort it by even one iota. Avraham did exactly that, he subdued his most essential character trait, kindness, to Hashem’s will. As he was ready to slaughter Yitzhak, Avraham is told, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” (Bereishit 22:12). Avraham passed the test, but the most important part was yet to come.
If you look at the text, when is Avraham actually blessed for his commitment to Hashem? “When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son…The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By Myself I swear, the LORD declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.’” (Bereishit 22:13-18). Avraham’s blessing, the ultimate result of his commitment to Hashem, of obeying His command, was given after he slaughtered the ram, not after he nearly sacrificed Yitzhak! The midrash explains that when Avraham was slaughtering the ram, he pleaded to Hashem that it be as if he was sacrificing Yitzhak; not because he had a personal desire to kill his son, but in order to truly communicate to Hashem that he was ready to subdue his entire being: his emotions, his desires, his intellect, his character, his kindness, his love to Hashem’s will!
It is interesting that the story of Sodom and the binding of Yitzhak occur approximately 38 years apart. I am sure that many interesting things occur during this time, but they are not reported in the written Torah. I believe that Hashem had Moshe Rabbeinu juxtapose these events so close to one another, skipping many years, in order to show the sharp contrast between the Avraham of chesed when it came to Sodom and the Avraham of strict obedience and gevura when it came to Yitzhak. Hashem wants us to learn that although He gave us our nature in order to serve Him, no matter what this nature may be, there comes a time that we must nullify it in order to completely subdue ourselves to Hashem.
What Can We Learn?
Through Avraham’s chesed we learn many invaluable lessons. We must work with what Hashem gives us. We live in a world filled with shmutz, and we must be careful to have big, strong boundaries between us and this shmutz; Hashem’s Torah and Mitzvot are the key to this. But, like Avraham, we must look for the righteousness, the spark of holiness within this crazy world that we live in, save these sparks, and bring them out in their full glory, with Hashem’s help. Most times, we do not have the privilege to scoff at the world and say that it is all evil, even if it may seem so. By doing so, we will renounce the good and the bad alike, and for the sake of the good we cannot defile it by lumping it in together with the bad. We must work to repair the bad, with Hashem’s help; we must attempt to elevate the bad, give it a chance to rise up to the good, and at the very least, we must separate the good from the bad so that they do not suffer together. Thus, like Avraham, we must have out tent open, ready to work with the world Hashem give us, and bring Hashem’s will into the world by way of our home.
At the same time, like with the destruction of Sodom, we must also acknowledge that there does exist such a thing as evil with no point of return. Not everything can be tolerated, for if we tolerate all things, then we will tolerate evil. Contrary to popular belief, tolerance is not always good, and love does not conquer all. Each trait, whether it be kindness, joy, mercy, tolerance, or even cruelty must be directed per Hashem’s will.
We read in the previous Parsha, Lech Lecha, “The word of G‑d came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Fear not, Abram; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great.” Based on this, we make a blessing three times a day, “… the shield of Abraham.” The Chassidic masters explain that when we read the Amidah and we make the blessing regarding Hashem being the shield of Avraham, it should be read “… Who protects/shields us FROM Abraham.” What does this mean? Avraham, the epitome of chesed, needed to be protected from his own kindness and mercy. At times, too much kindness leads to tolerance of evil. As our sages explain, tolerance of evil leads to cruelty towards the kind.
And so, with the binding of Yitzhak, Avraham had to quench his kindness, he had to show Hashem that his master was not kindness and mercy, but his master was Hashem, the Master of the universe! Avraham annulled his nature, his ego, his very essence to bend to Hashem’s will. Avraham directed his entire being toward Hashem, even when it was antithetical to his very nature.
Hashem did not command Avraham to destroy Sodom. Why? In order to allow Avraham to have the opportunity to show generations to come how we must seek out good within evil, how to fight to bring out righteousness within our world. At the same time, Hashem did not leave Avraham with a choice when it came to Yitzhak. He commanded Avraham to sacrifice his son in order to allow Avraham to show us that at the end of the day, our nationhood’s survival and very essence is defined by us serving Hashem’s will. It is much easier to fight for one’s own son than for an evil, disgusting city. Thus, Hashem did not leave Avraham with a choice when it came to Yitzhak; He tested Avraham to the extreme. Avraham’s chesed could not change Hashem’s mind about the immoral, evil Sodom, but Avraham’s unquestionable servitude to Hashem did ensure the eternal covenant between Hashem and His holy nation.
Avraham was not selfish, he did not treat his son as his vehicle to greatness, and in effect, he did not treat the entire Jewish people as an expendable vehicle. Avraham’s sole mission was to serve Hashem, and in the merit of his actions, we too, as the Jewish people, merit Avraham’s blessings and relationship with Hashem. We, just as Avraham, must bend our will to Hashem’s will no matter how difficult, with Hashem’s help. In the merit of Avraham’s nullification of self to serve Hashem, Hashem too gives His entire self to the Jewish people. We do not worship kindness, nor strength, nor intellect, nor emotions; we worship Hashem. May He guide us and our unique traits in the direction that He desires through His Torah and His commandments.