Vayeira 5759 – Gilayon #55
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"Will You Destroy the Righteous with the Wicked?"
Rabbi Paul (Pinchas) Laderman
There are four examples in the
Bible where G-d announces that evil will befall a community and Biblical characters
respond – each in his own way.
NOAH does everything that G-d asks of him. He does
not argue with G-d. He does not attempt to defend mankind from their impending
doom. His response is to save himself and his family, no more. (See the story of
Noah -Genesis 6:13 – 22.)
ABRAHAM quarrels with G-d. He attempts to change the
divine decree. He persists in his efforts to rescue the people, ultimately to no avail.
(See the story of Abraham – Genesis 18:20 – 25.)
MOSES debates with G-d and
succeeds in preventing the destruction of the entire people and in reducing the
calamity to the guilty parties. (See Moses' story – Exodus 32:9 -32. )
JONAH tries to
flee from his prophetic mission. Against his will, he lands in Nineveh and preaches
repentance and succeeds despite himself. (See the book of Jonah 1:1 -3.)
lack of concern for humanity disturbed the classic commentaries. Rashi attempts to
justify Noah by saying "Why did G-d trouble Noah to build the ark which took him 120
years to build? So that people would see him laboring on the Ark. They would
curiously inquire of him about it and he would explain to them thatG-d is going to
bring a flood [and destroy the world]. Perhaps, they would thereby repent" (Rashi on
Rashi in his comment on the verse " … a perfectly righteous man was
he in his generation" (vs. 9) explains the left-handed complement by quoting R.
Yohanan (Sanhedrin 108a) "in his generation [was he righteous]". Had he lived in a
different generation he would not have been special." Noah in his generation was
chosen by G-d to continue the human race. But he in no way is the equal of Abraham
The silence of Jonah also confounds the classic commentaries. Rashi
puts into Jonah's mouth, "I will flee across the sea, where G-d has no dominion …. "
Why did Jonah not want to go to Nineveh? He said, "The non-Jews may listen to my
preaching and repent How will it look for the Jewish people who do not listen to the
rebuke of the prophets?"(Rashi, vs 3). Jonah, according to Rashi, tries to flee his
calling because, he claims, G-d does not have dominion outside of the land of Israel.
In addition, he does not want to cast dispersions on the Jewish people who are
apparently more cynical than are the non-Jews regarding the censure of the
Moses hears G-d's challenge, "I will destroy them and make you into a
great nation". It is the same offer that He made to Noah. Moses rejects it outright. He
attempts to defend the people in spite of their grievous sin. He struggles with G-d to
minimize the scope of the calamity. The sinners will receive their due punishment, but
the punishment will be individual and not collective.
In our PARSHAH the Patriarch
Abraham hears the word of G-d, about the imminent doom that is to fall on Sodom
and Gomorrah. Abraham is not apathetic, or uninvolved. He does not flee with the
excuse that they are non-Jews, that they have it coming to them because they are
wicked people. He is shocked by the general collective punishment. He cries out –
"Will You destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous
within the city; will You still destroy and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that
are therein? … It is a desecration that You do such a thing, to slay the righteous with
the wicked, that the righteous should befall the same fate as the wicked! It is a
desecration, that the judge of all the earth should do unjustly!" (vs.23 – 25).
Midrash R Aha comments "CHALILAH L'CHA – [translated here] "it is a desecration"
twice to emphasize the magnitude of the desecration of G-d's divinity (Breshit Rabbah
49:16). Abraham rails at G-d's injustice! There is no rational explanation to G-d's
action! It defies everything he knows about a beneficent G-d! In his anguish his cry
"CHALILAH L'CHA …. CHALILAH L'CHA" articulates pain, anger, shock and disbelief!
Abraham, the righteous one, whose life is devoted to acts of CHESSED -kindness,
charity, mercy , lovingkindness – is the antithesis of the people of Sodom who
symbolize evil and cruelty. You would imagine that Abraham would rejoice at the
destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, seeing thereby the victory of CHESSED over
evil. But Abraham's CHESSED prevents him from rejoicing at the downfall of
evildoers. Abraham in the Kabbalistic tradition is the symbol of CHESSED. He
exemplifies the verse, "Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be
glad when he stumbles" (Proverbs 24:17). He prays even for his enemies and tries to
gain for them the full measure of justice for each individual according to his merits.
Abraham's arguing with G-d ends when G-d says, "I will not destroy [the city] if there
be ten righteous people therein" (Genesis 18:32). Immediately thereafter the text tells
us, "And G-d went away after He finished speaking with Abraham and Abraham
returned to his place" (vs. 33). The text does not inform us if Abraham accepted or
was satisfied with the divine response. The story simply ends here. The Midrash
elaborates with an analogy: The Judge patiently listens until the defense finishes his
plea. When the defense rests, the Judge rises. So it was here. "And G-d went away
after He finished speaking with Abraham … " The defense continues to offer his plea
as long as the Judge is patient with him. When the Judge rises, the defense rests. So
it was here. "And G-d went away after He finished talking with Abraham and Abraham
returned to his place." The prosecutor patiently waits while the defense offers his plea
and the Judge listens to the plea. When the Judge rises and the defense ends his
plea, the prosecutor goes off to perform his responsibility" (Breshit Rabbah 29:26).
He did what had to be done and then he moved on. In addition to being a person of
CHESSED, he was also a man of faith. His CHESSED caused him to protest when
necessary. His faith gave him the strength to carry on. It had been said about him, in
another context, "And he believed in G-d, and He counted it to him for an act of
righteousness". (Genesis 15:6).