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Dvar Torah on Parshat Vayeira

Parashat Hashavua Vayeira 2003 / 5764 -

13.11.2003 by
This week's parsha contains the fascinating dialogue between God and Avraham about the fate of the people of Sodom and Amora. God informs Avraham of His plans to destroy the cities and their inhabitants. God's decision to share this information with Avraham and, perhaps, invite some sort of response from him, is presented in an interesting way:"And God said, shall I hide from Avraham that which I do? For Avraham shall surely be a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed because of him...."God then informs Avraham of his plans to destroy the sinful cities. Avraham's response is bold. He asks God whether He plans to destroy the righteous along with the wicked, and suggests that there may be 50 righteous people in the cities, for whose sake God should spare all the inhabitants. God agrees to save the cities if there are 50 innocents within them. Avraham, seeing the success of his argument and, perhaps, mindful of the true situation in Sodom, lowers the magic number to forty-five, then forty, thirty, twenty, and, finally, ten, to which God agrees. The subsequent destruction, later in the parsha, would indicate that not even this small a number of worthy people in fact lived there; only Avraham's nephew Lot, and his immediate family are spared. A question that occurs to me is this: why does Avraham begin at fifty and stop at ten? His essential question, will God unjustly kill the righteous along with the wicked, would surely be as relevant if he were talking about only one righteous person. Why does Avraham think in terms of groups of people, and stop at what seems to be the smallest group he can imagine, ten, rather than continue and ask God to save the cities for the sake of one righteous person? Alternatively, why not ask God, if you need at least ten to save the cities, and those ten don't exist, to just save the innocent individuals within? Why are the fates of the entire cities and the individuals within them intertwined? I think an answer can be found in God's initial soliloquy about His decision to consult with Avraham on the plan to punish Sodom and Amora. He says that Avraham will be the forefather of a great nation, a nation which will bring benefits to other nations. It is as such that Avraham has the right to be part of God's decision- making process. The clear implication is that if Avraham is seen as just an individual, then the fate of Sodom and Amora is none of his business. If he is part of a [in this case potential] nation, then he holds a different position, vis a vis both Sodom and God. An individual either lives in Sodom, and is effected by what happens to it, or doesn't, and is not essentially concerned with its fate. A nation, a collective, has a different set of obligations, and aspirations. It must decide what its positions are vis a vis others nations with whom it must interact, it must have a foreign policy, it must decide whether it will it be a blessing or curse to its neighbors. It is with this in mind that Avraham argues with God. Avraham knows that the real issues of morality, of right and wrong, are played out collectively. Yes, an individual is responsible for his or her actions, but it is within the collective that our actions take on weight and importance, within the collective that we impact most significantly on the world. It is for this reason that Avraham, in his argument with God, deals with the collective, starting with the not insignificant number of fifty, which, I imagine, would represent a relevant social and cultural grouping in Sodom. If, within the corrupt culture of Sodom there exists a decent counter-culture, an uncorrupted group of people, then there is hope both for them as well as for the larger society. With a good deal of chutzpah he ratchets the number down to a minimalist ten, and stops there, for he knows that less than ten can, by no stretch of the imagination, be seen as a significant cultural or national group. The clear message is that the individual, as an individual, makes very little difference to the world in which he or she lives. His or her real value is as part of a group, as part of a culture. Avraham's individual piety is impressive, but not enough to make him a natural partner with God in running the world. As the patriarch of a nation, however, he has a different standing, a different order of importance, which God recognizes. Similarly, someone who lives in Sodom but manages to keep his personal integrity intact is not worthy of being saved, because what he has accomplished has had no social or cultural impact. He is righteous on his own, in a vacuum. Avraham understands that such an accomplishment is not enough to save someone. Only a group of righteous people, in this case at least ten, have the ability, as a community, to impact the world around them, and, therefore, deserve to be spared, and create enough hope and possibility for the larger collective to make them worthy of being saved as well. We live in a period when, in some circles, nationalism, both as a phenomenon and as a value, is being challenged. The very concept of community has become problematic, with much talk of imagined and virtual communities. I think that the story of Avraham and Sodom argues against this position. Our goodness, or our evil, occurs in community, with others. It is within a community of like-minded individuals that our thoughts, beliefs, and actions have real, lasting impact. It is in a communal structure that we must test our beliefs, to see if they work in the real world, to see if we remain committed to them when they are challenged, or reconfigure them when they prove to be unworkable or inappropriate. The communal and national arenas turn individual inclination into a living, breathing morality, personal preference into public policy, and create a shared experience of values and ideals which must be constantly tested and refined in the real world. It is worth noting that Avraham's nephew, Lot, who is saved from the destruction of Sodom (possibly because of his connection to Avraham rather than for his own worth, or perhaps as a combination of the two), failed to affect the community within which he lived; whatever morality he had was individual. His end, in which, after being led out (by two angels) of a Sodom which rejected him, his wife is turned into a pillar of salt and he commits incest with his two daughters, speaks, I think, to the perverseness of the unconnected life, the ultimate sterility of a life not lived in community. Shabbat Shalom,Shimon Felix

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