WILL NOT THE JUDGE OF THE EARTH ACT JUSTLY?
Our Parashah includes one of the most famous negotiations in history. In Chapter 18, beginning with verse 23, we find Avraham pleading before – and demanding of – God, who is the judge of all the earth, to act justly. What is this just action? Not to destroy the wicked with the righteous. Avraham then proposes that if there are fifty righteous people in the wicked cities of S’dom, God should spare the entire area on their behalf. When God accedes to this demand, Avraham raises the stakes – if there are forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty – even ten righteous people to be found, God should not destroy the cities. Rather, He should bear the [sins of] the place on behalf of the righteous.
I would like to address two questions raised by Avraham’s negotiating style:
- Why is the only just action for God to take – from Avraham’s perspective – to spare the cities? Why not send the righteous out – and then destroy? We find this Heavenly approach used in the case of Noach – why not ask for it here?
- On the other hand, if the presence of the righteous causes the injustice of destroying the city – sweeping away the good with the bad – then why did Avraham stop at ten? Isn’t the presence of even one righteous person enough to justify staying the punishment? Wouldn’t it be equally unjust to destroy a town of wicked people among whom one righteous man lived? Isn’t the punishment of innocents, by virtue of their association and proximity to the guilty, unfit and unseemly for the Judge of all the earth?
In short – Avraham’s tactic is difficult from both sides – if the presence of innocent, righteous people should render punishment unjust – why stop at ten? And if there is a way to save the righteous while meting out punishment to the wicked (e.g. by sending the righteous away in advance) – why not achieve justice in that manner?
BIRKAT AVRAHAM – BY WHAT MERIT?
In order to address these questions, we need to explore a more fundamental question relating to Avraham and the great blessings bestowed upon him by the Almighty.
When we first meet Avraham, God commands him:
Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and I will curse the one who curses you and through you all families of the earth will be blessed (B’resheet 12:1-3).
Avraham is promised these great blessings – and we have absolutely no idea why! Granted, the Midrashim describe mighty battles, debates and challenges – along with philosophical greatness – by which Avraham distinguished himself in Ur of the Chaldeans before the “call”; but why is the text silent on this matter?
This is not the style of the Torah; Before God commanded him to build the ark, we are told that:
Noach found favor in God’s eyes…Noach was a righteous, wholehearted man in his generations; Noach walked with God. (B’resheet 6:8-9).
Why, then, does Avraham’s “call” come like a bolt from the blue, with neither rhyme nor reason to explain this great blessing?
CHAPTERS 1-11: AVRAHAM’S BACKGROUND
Much has been written (including in this forum) as to the implications of the first chapters of B’resheet – and the purpose of the entire Sefer (see Rashi and Ramban in their opening comments on the Torah). There is, along with all of the other fine (and not-so-fine) answers, one that will help us answer our questions:
Given that the Patriarchal narratives are essential in order to understand our national history, claim on the Land etc., the first eleven chapters (including Creation, the Garden, the exile, the Flood and the Dispersion at the Tower) comprise a necessary backdrop against which to view the behavior and activities of the Patriarchs. While this may sound like an attractive approach, some explanation is necessary.
When God created mankind, He called him “Adam” – since he was from the Adamah (earth – note the last phrase in B’resheet 2:5). Indeed, man was so much “of the earth” that his failures caused the earth to be cursed (3:17). This tie was further severed when his son committed the first murder. Not only was he “cursed from the ground that opened its mouth to receive the blood of your brother”, but he was uprooted and made to wander (4:11-12).
When humanity continued to descend into a storm of moral depravity and violence, God decided to wipe them out (6:7) – and to begin the process anew with Noach (note the similarities between the charge given to Noach upon his exit from the Ark in Chapter 9 and those given to Adam in Chapter 1).
Just as the name Adam connotes a symbiotic relationship with the earth, implying a static harmony with nature, similarly the name Noach implies a type of respite and calm amid the storm of corruption around him. The Torah provides this explanation for his name, crediting his father, Lemekh, with this prayer/prophecy (6:29). Noach was to be at rest (a close literal translation of his name) and, indeed, that is how he behaved. While the storm of corruption – and, later, the storm of Divine justice – swirled around him, he was calm and at rest. From the Divine perspective, there was every reason to utilize this method of “starting over”; since not only every corrupted being was wiped off the face of the earth, but even the memories of their sinful behavior were eradicated. There was every possibility for a “fresh start”. The worldview behind this perspective is that if man is created with goodness, then, if he remains “at rest” (status quo), he will continue to be good and upright.
This approach, as we know, did not succeed. Almost immediately after coming out of the Ark, descended into becoming a man of the earth (9:20; the intent is clearly pejorative – see B’resheet Rabbah ad loc.) After his drunken interaction with Ham (or K’na’an) and the subsequent curse, his progeny continued to behave in an unworthy manner – culminating with the scene at the Tower of Shin’ar.
THE TOWER AT SHIN’AR:
THE BACKDROP AGAINST WHICH TO VIEW AVRAHAM
At the beginning of Ch. 11, we meet the builders of the great tower at Shin’ar. We know that their behavior was considered sinful – for why else would God disrupt it?; but what was their terrible sin?
The P’shat (straightforward) reading of the text reveals only one crime:
Come, let us build a tower with its spire in the heavens and make a name for ourselves, lest we be spread throughout the land. (11:4)
God had commanded Noach and his children (in the same manner as He had commanded Adam) to:
be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…spread throughout the earth and multiply in it (9:1,7).
The Divine purpose would be met by mankind’s populating the earth, settling many lands and creating diverse civilizations. These sons of Noach chose to do the exact opposite – to build a tower that would support their ill-fated unity.
As is well known, however, the Rabbis read much worse intentions into their behavior – understanding that they desired to compete with God, to fight against Him etc. Where are these ideas in the text? (not that they need be; but it is always more impactful when we identify textual allusions which support Midrashic threads). Truth to tell, we can only identify these textual allusions after our introduction to Avraham, as we shall see.
It was onto this particular stage of humanity, a species which desired nothing but to avoid spreading out and preferred to “sit still”, that this great hero, Avraham Avinu, made his powerful entrance. In a world where everyone was satisfied to stay put, Avraham unquestionably and immediately accepted God’s call to: Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house. Not only did he leave – he continued his wanderings long after reaching the place that I will show you. Everywhere he went, he built an altar and called out in God’s Name (whatever that may mean; prayer, education, declaration). He was clearly a mover and shaker in the most literal sense of the phrase:
He moved from place to place in order to shake the people from their spiritual and intellectual complacency. Note how S’forno (12:8-9) explains Avraham’s route (north and south, between Beit-El and Ha’Ai) –
between these two large cities, in order that many people would come to hear him call out in God’s Name… when he traveled from place to place as is the custom of the shepherds, he didn’t go from east to west, in order not to abandon either one of these cities where some of the people were already drawn to him.
We now understand Avraham’s greatness which earned him (and we, his progeny) the great blessings promised throughout his life: When God told him to wander, he took it upon himself to go against the lifestyle in which he grew up, to fight the complacency and “status quo” of the world around him – and to tirelessly bring the word of God to those around him.
BA L’LAMED V’NIM’TZA LAMED
Sometimes a model is utilized to inform about a new situation – and our learning enhances our understanding of the model itself! This process, known in Midrashic terminology as Ba l’Lamed v’Nim’tza Lamed (it comes to teach and ends up “learning”) can be applied to the relationship between Avraham and the Tower.
From the Noach orientation of the men of the tower, who wanted to avoid movement and dispersion, we learn of the greatness of Avraham, who was willing to continue moving so long as God’s Name was not yet recognized and revered in the world. Conversely, from a refrain found several times in the Avrahamic narratives, we can understand the sin of the Tower on a deeper level.
Everywhere that Avraham built an altar, he called out in God’s Name. This stands in direct apposition to the plan of the Tower-builders – Na’aseh Lanu Shem – let us make a name for ourselves! Against Avraham’s desire to publicize the Almighty, the men of the Tower wanted to publicize their own power. From the Tower, we appreciate Avraham’s wanderings; from Avraham, we understand the depth of the sin of the Tower, who wanted to rival God and substitute his Name with theirs. (This last point was suggested by R. Menachem Liebtag in several of his shiurim on Sefer B’resheet.)
This explains – and provides the textual allusion to – the Midrashim which focus on the “battle with God” implicit in the construction of the Tower.
We now understand the greatness of Avraham – and the worldview which he needed to challenge. Whereas the world around him was satisfied with the way things were, symbolized by the goal of remaining in one place, Avraham set out to move among princes, warriors and travelers and to shake them at their ideological roots.
AVRAHAM AND NOACH
The difference between these two righteous men lies not only in their actions – but also in the mission each had to fulfill. Whereas Noach was called to “start over” – and thus could afford to be “Noach” – at rest and in stasis, Avraham was called for a much more difficult mission.
After the Flood, God promised that he would never again destroy the world. How, then, would Divine Justice be meted out if the world was again deserving of the same fate? Instead of destruction, God would send His messengers to teach, instruct and correct the behavior of mankind. Avraham could not afford to “sit still” because the world he faced was not a fresh one, recently reborn, like the one faced by Noach. Avraham’s world was already old, corrupt and confused. This reality does not allow for complacency if the Divine plan is to be implemented; it takes change – radical change – and a charismatic, powerful, saintly person to effect that change.
We now understand Avraham’s mission: To bring awareness of the One God – the God whose “traits” are justice and compassion – into the world by teaching others and effecting their Teshuvah. Destruction of the wicked is not the Avrahamic model – it belongs to the “Noach” orientation.
AVRAHAM AND S’DOM
We can now return to our original questions: Why did Avraham ask God to spare the cities – and not just allow the righteous to leave? And why did he stop his negotiations at ten?
Keep in mind that the destruction of S’dom is presented in the Torah with deliberate parallels to the Flood story. Note that a questionably righteous person (Noach, Lot) is saved from the utter destruction of the area – after which he becomes drunk and is involved in sexually disgraceful behavior with his children. I believe that the Torah is suggesting a parallel so that we can better appreciate the Hiddush (innovation) of Avraham’s approach, over that of Noach.
Based on everything that we saw, it is clear that Avraham was not praying for the salvation of the righteous – it was the wicked people of S’dom who were the focus of his plea. If there are fifty righteous people there – there is good reason to hope that they will be able to instruct, persuade and enlighten the wicked populace regarding their evil ways. “Is it your way, God, to destroy them together – before the one group has been given every chance to correct and educate the other group?” God’s response confirms Avraham’s approach – “If I find fifty righteous people, I will bear the entire place for them.” In other words, I will tolerate the evil – not on account of the merit of the righteous, but because of the potential for change which their presence suggests.
As the negotiations tighten, Avraham is asking for much more – he is asking that God accept a far-fetched possibility, that ten righteous people might be able to save the city and to educate the populace. Why did Avraham stop here? Why not eight, six, four, two – why not one righteous person?
From personal experience, Avraham recognized the importance of community. He had needed to leave his own community in order to commune with God – and he understood the depths of courage required to do that. He well understood that one – or even a handful – of righteous people could never turn things around. As idealistic as we may be about our ability to educate, to “spread the word” and to draw people close to the word of God – the hard reality is that a holy environment, a sanctified setting and the safety of numbers is essential towards promoting spiritual growth. Avraham could not ask for less then ten, because less than ten is not a community (witness the minimum number for a minyan) – it is a handful of individuals. (S’forno and R. Hirsh, in different styles, suggest a similar approach to understanding Avraham’s negotiations).
Seeking the salvation of the citizens of S’dom, Avraham understood that there would need to be a community – small though it may be – that would serve as a shining example of righteousness and truth and that would then be a refuge for those S’domites who were thus attracted to the ways of truth and the paths of pleasantness.
Our challenge, within each of our local communities and throughout the world-wide covenantal community of Am Yisra’el, is to create and maintain a holy and righteous community which will serve as an example for all those around us – and which will be a safe environment within which everyone can grow in righteousness and sanctity.
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom.
The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles