Our father Avraham pleads for the forgiveness and survival of Sodom. He strikes the best bargain he apparently can with God, so to speak. If there are ten righteous people in Sodom then the city will be spared. There is a sizable population living in Sodom so Avraham is somehow confident that he has saved the city once the number of necessary righteous inhabitants has been reduced to ten. This is perhaps the reason that Avraham does not bargain for a number lower than ten. But Avraham is sadly disappointed. Sodom does not contain even ten righteous people and the avenging angels do their work of retribution and destruction.
My teachers often pointed out to my colleagues and me during our yeshiva years that Sodom was not destroyed because of its tens of thousands of evildoers. It was destroyed because it lacked ten good people. Once again, here in the story of Sodom, the Torah reiterates to us the value of an individual, of a good person, of a good deed performed for its own sake, how in the eyes of Heaven goodness always trumps evil. Therefore Judaism places great responsibility upon the individual and his or her personal behavior. Rambam makes this point when he states that before doing an act in life one should always consider that the whole world is evenly balanced at that moment between good and evil, salvation and destruction. The act about to be performed if it is one of goodness can save the entire world. And if it is wrong and evil, selfish and uncaring, it can doom all of humankind.
A second lesson inherent in the story of Sodom is that even the most righteous person in the world our father Avraham cannot save other people simply with his blessings and entreaties. People, communities, nations, have to save themselves. Avraham can guide and teach, serve as an example and role model, influence and lead, but in the last analysis only Sodom can save Sodom, only Lot can save Lot. There is a great reliance in the religious and general world upon others to somehow pull us through. People are willing to invest a great deal of time, effort and money to obtain the blessings of a righteous person to solve their problems. The same effort invested in their own personal attempts to improve themselves in their daily behavior would perhaps produce greater and more beneficial results than blessings from others, no matter how great those others are. The rabbis of the Talmud when asked for blessings often asked the supplicant: What good deed have you done in your lifetime? A blessing can have no good effect if the person receiving it has no personal merit. The Talmud stated the great rule in life: Your behavior will bring you closer [to God and humans] and in the alternative your behavior will distance you from them. Avraham is powerless to save Sodom without the cooperation of the inhabitants of Sodom. This is truly the bitter and telling lesson of this weeks parsha. It is one that should be studied and internalized by us all.