Vayera: Would you destroy the righteous with the wicked?

Vayera: Would you destroy the righteous with the wicked?

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

The moral stature of the patriarch Abraham was considerably greater than that of Noah, the progenitor of the human race. We quote here the words of the Zohar on this point:

“And Abraham drew near and said, wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23) said R. Yehuda: Who hath seen a father as compassionate as Abraham? Come and see: Regarding Noah it is stated (6:13) “And God said to Noah, the end of all flesh is come before me;…and behold I will destroy them from the earth. Make thee an ark of gopher wood …”; And Noah held his peace and said naught, neither did he intercede. Whereas Abraham, as soon as the Holy One blessed be He said to him: “Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great and because their sin is very grievous, I will go down now and see …”; Immediately, as it is stated, “and Abraham drew near and said: Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?”

God indeed afforded Abraham with the opportunity for interceding on behalf of the sodomites, since He said to him Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, And because their sin is very grievous I will go down and see… (18:20-2)

This passage clearly mirrors the Divine intention to put Abraham to the test to see whether he would beseech mercy for them. Immediately after this “Abraham drew near.” What are the exact implications of the phrase “drew near”; in relation to the Almighty who fills the whole world with his glory? Rashi explains this to us, basing himself on ancient Rabbinic sources.

  • Drawing near to speak harshly (that is to join or draw near to battle, as it were)
  • Drawing near to appease
  • Drawing near to pray

In other words, Abraham mustered all his inner resource, both his gentle and hard qualities, love and fear, mildness and boldness, ready to combat on behalf of Sodom. He argued:

It be far from Thee to do after this manner and besought:

Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once.
He boldly exclaimed:
Shall not the judge of all earth do justice?
And recoiled in awe:
Behold now I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, Which am but dust and ashes.

Let us try to understand the contents of his supplication. On whose behalf did Abraham intercede? To save the righteous? Or the wicked as well? Here we quote the first part of his intercession:

Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city:
Will thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?
That be far from Thee to do after this manner,
To slay the righteous with the wicked:


And that the righteous should be as the wicked,
Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice? (18:23-25)

Our commentators have been puzzled by the seeming contradictions in the above passage. Here we quote the remarks of Solomon Dubnow in the Biur , to genesis:

First (v. 23) Abraham prayed that God should not slay the righteous together with the wicked, whereas in the immediately succeeding verse he besought God to deliver the wicked along with the righteous, even before his first prayer had been answered. In the next verse Abraham then reverted to his first plea to save only the righteous.

Here is a plausible solution propounded by David ben Samuel Halevi in his work on Rashi entitled Divrei David:

It is only right that you do not destroy the righteous with the wicked, since that is but justice and requires no prayer. My prayer is only directed at beseeching You to deliver the whole place for the sake of the righteous. But if my prayer is of no avail, then at least, why should you kill the righteous since this is not a question of seeking a special favor but is only justice!

Two principles are here enunciated, the first, that of righteous judgment. It is this which emerges in the Torah as the quality characterizing Abraham’s conduct and which distinguishes his spiritual destiny, as worded in the verses preceding his dialogue with the Almighty:

For I know him,
That he will command his children and his household after him. And they shall keep the way of the Lord, To do justice and judgment. (18, 19)

The phrase For I know him implies that this as the path that had been marked out for him and his descendants by God. (cf. Jeremiah 1, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee”;). But the destiny that had been marked out for Abraham in the future also fitted the pattern of his conduct in the biblical narrative. The Petriarch is true to the principles divinely reserved for his descendants, even before he had yet been granted children. Abraham demands the same standard of conduct, as it were, from the Judge of the earth:

Shall no the Judge of all the earth do Justice?!

The second principle that emerges from the dialogue between Abraham and the Almighty is the responsibility of the righteous few towards the rest of society, however corrupt, and their capacity to save it from destruction by the sheer force of their own merit and moral impact. Should there exist in Sodom, the symbol of wickedness and corruption, fifty righteous men, should not their merit be capable of saving the whole city? Surely even one light illuminates far more than itself and one spark is sufficient to penetrate the thickest darkness!

Surely the “place”; constitutes but one whole and if its heart is strong and healthy, should this not result in saving the rest of the body?

The prophet Jeremiah formulated these same sentiments in a starker and more extreme manner:

Run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, And see now and know, and seek in the broad places thereof, If ye can find a man, If there be any that executeth judgment, that seeketh the truth; And I will pardon it. (Jeremiah 5:1)

But our sages inserted one important proviso limiting the power of the few or the individual to save the many through their merit, finding an allusion to their principle in the Divine answer to Abraham’s first plea in our chapter:

And the Lord said:
If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city,
Then I will spare all the place for their sakes.(18:26)

It is the repetition implied in the employing of both “in Sodom”; and “within the city”; that provides our commentators with the clue. Ibn Ezra briefly but significantly reveals the all important implications of this repetition:

the reason for the words “within the city”; implies that they fear the Lord in public, compare Jeremiah “run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem.”;

In other words, the few can turn the scales and save the place, if the righteous individuals concerned are “within the city,”; playing a prominent part in public life and exerting their influence in its many fields of activity. But if they merely exist, living in retirement and never venturing firth but pursuing their pious conduct unseen and unknown, they will, perhaps, save themselves, but will certainly not possess the spiritual merit capable of protecting the city. The same city which forces the righteous few into retirement so that their scrupulous moral standards should not interfere with the injustice dominating public life, the same city is not entitled to claim salvation by virtue of the handful of righteous men leading a secluded life within it. Sodom could not boast of fifty, forty, thirty, or even ten righteous men, and if they existed, at any rate they were not “within the city.”; Radak, quoting his father, explains Jeremiah’s lament referred to above in the same sense, implying that no “man”; of any importance could be found “that executeth judgment, that seeketh the truth”; in the streets of Jerusalem. Here we cite the Radak an the relevant verse:

Behold David had said (Psalms 79, 2) “the dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the beats of the earth.”; Behold, then, there were in Jerusalem saints and servants of the Lord. How could Jeremiah then say “if there be any that executeth judgment…!”; my father, his memory be for a blessing, explained that Jeremiah expressly stated “through the streets of Jerusalem”; and “in the broad places thereof,”; since the saints who were in Jerusalem hid inside their houses and were not able to show themselves in the streets and public places because of the wicked.