The theme of this past week seems to have been “storms”: A political storm, in the form of a hotly-contested battle for the Presidency, as the polls show a virtual dead heat; the big storm on the east coast, Hurricane Sandy, that brought with it billions of dollars in damages and claimed dozens of lives; and finally, the storm in this week’s Perasha: the graphic description of the destruction of Sdom and Amora: “God made sulphur and fire rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah – it came from God, out of the sky. He overturned these cities along with the entire plain, [destroying] everyone who lived in the cities and [all] that was growing from the ground.”
I would like to use this opportunity to reflect on the Torah response to the latter two types of storms.
We’ve mentioned it before, but it’s such a fundamental point, that it bears repeating:
The Netziv, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in his commentary on Sefer Bereishit, asks a basic question: Why would Avraham Avinu, ethicist, the champion of Ancient Near East Monotheism, petition G-d to spare the idolatrous, immoral cities of Sdom and Amora? Does the survival of these people not run counter to everything that Avraham represents and seeks to accomplish?
Netziv’s answer: Our Avot, our forefathers, were “Yesharim”; they were people who were not just honest and ethical; they were invested in the קיום הבריאה – the maintenance and success of G-d’s creation. Our forefathers played a key role in the Genesis, the building of the infrastructure of G-d’s world. Abraham’s intervention on behalf of Sdom and Amora represents just that.
The Netziv’s approach appears in other classical Jewish sources, as well. In his commentary on Pirkei Avot, Rabbenu Yonah states:
שיש לאדם להתפלל על שלום כל העולם ולהצטער על צער של אחרים
A person must pray for the peace of the entire world and feel anguish at the pain of others
In a parallel comment, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook states
Love of People must be alive in our heart and soul – the love of every unique individual. Also, love of all of the nations, and the desire to see their economic and spiritual well-being. Hatred must be directed only at the wickedness and impurity of the world.
The thread of Netziv’s approach to Avraham’s prayer on behalf of Sdom and Amorah, then, runs through a variety of our classical sources.
A somewhat different approach is taken by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. Sensitive to the nuances of language in the text,
אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ:
Avraham asks if G-d will spare the city on behalf of fifty people “within” the city? G-d’s response utilizes the same language.
Rav Hirsch: A Tzaddik who is בתוך העיר – in the midst of city – rebuking and correcting the behavior of others – is the type of person Avraham invests in during tefilah. A smug and self-righteous person, satisfied with his own religious level, would have no interest in getting the locals on a proper moral track.
My inference from Rav Hirsch is that Avraham’s intervention on behalf of Sdom and Amora did not flow solely from his concern for the קיום הבריאה – the maintenance and success of G-d’s creation; rather, Avraham Avinu seeks signs of life that there is a potential for moral improvement in Sdom. If there are Tzaddikim who are בתוך העיר – in the midst of the city, who care about the moral fabric of the town.
What the two approaches do have in common, though, is that they both focus on Avraham Avinu’s commitment to others.
Millions of people, including many members of the Jewish community, were harmed, physically and financially, during Hurricane Sandy. Though we should have our eyes to the plight of all the victims, our first priority is of course to our fellow Jews. Before Shabbat, I received two emails: one from the Young Israel synagogue movement, and one from the OU. Both are reliable organizations, collecting funds to help members of the Jewish community. Please donate to my discretionary fund and I will direct the funds to these fine organizations.