Vayera contains some of the best-known stories in the Torah. One is Abraham’s almost unthinkable chutzpah as he demands that God live up to His own standards.
God tells Abraham that He is about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their great sins. And Abraham reacts, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?… Far be it from You! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?”
God replies, “If I find within the city of Sodom 50 innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Then Abraham begins to bargain — 45, 40, 30, 20 — all the way down to 10 righteous people would be sufficient to prevent the destruction of the cities.
Why does God enter into this negotiation with Abraham? Because it is exactly what God was hoping for. Before God speaks to Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah, God says to Himself, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?… For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”
God tells Abraham about His plan to see if he will do the right thing. How do we know? As the negotiation begins and Abraham asks God if he will spare the cities if 50 righteous people can be found, God replies, “If I find within the city of Sodom 50 innocent ones….” The rabbis are close readers, and they ask: Once God has said “in Sodom,” why was it also necessary to say “within the city?”
The hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pshyscha explained: “The force of ‘within the city’ is that it is not enough that they will be righteous people occupying the benches of the beit midrash, but righteous people who are in the midst of the city, involved with others. If they are engaged with worldly experience — and yet they are righteous — then God will forgive the whole city for their sake.”
There must have been many people living in Sodom who did not agree with the policies of the city fathers — specifically, the prohibition of offering aid to the poor or strangers — people who were deeply troubled by these laws, who viewed events with quiet disapproval, who did not participate in the organized cruelty of the majority of the population. But that was not enough. One cannot be a tzadik, a righteous person, by burying one’s head in the sand.
To be a righteous person “within the city” it is necessary to be fully involved; working against any distortion of justice; speaking out on behalf of goodness, kindness, and fair treatment for all. A tzadik in the city must do more than refuse to be a party to evil; a tzadik must stand up for the truth and fight for what is right. As the saying attributed to Edmund Burke has it, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Abraham was willing to challenge God Himself in defense of justice. And I can just imagine God shepping nachas.