The Power Of Abraham’s Influence
Could Abraham And Lot Have Saved Sodom From Destruction?
In this video for Parshat Vayeira, David Block and Immanuel Shalev turn to one of the most curious conversations in the entire Torah: when Abraham musters his chutzpah and pleads head-on with God, attempting to save the city of Sodom and Gomorrah from Divine destruction.
God promises that if there are even 10 righteous people who dwell there, then God will spare the entire city. And then, something odd happens: the conversation ends, abruptly – and God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah.
Why did the conversation end at 10? Why did God proceed with His destruction? Was it because Abraham wasn’t righteous enough to save them? What about Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who was dwelling in Sodom – didn’t he deserve to be saved?
David and Imu ask the tough questions about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and uncover a fascinating insight about what it takes to be truly righteous in the eyes of God.
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Immanuel: Do those themes carry over into this week's parsha? We think they do, in some pretty astounding ways.
David: To see what we're talking about, let's take a closer look at a really strange conversation between God and Abraham before the city of Sodom is destroyed.
Abraham Pleads to God to Not Destroy Sodom and Gomorrah
Immanuel: Here's what happens. For some reason, God decides to tells Abraham about the plan to destroy Sodom. Abraham steps in and says, "But God, let's say there are 50 righteous people in the city... would you really destroy the whole city then?" And God says "No, I won't destroy it if there are 50."
David: And then it just becomes a bargaining session. Abraham says, "What if there are 45 tzadikim?" "Okay, I won't destroy it for 45." "What about 40?" And that goes on until Abraham reaches 10. And that's basically the conversation.
Immanuel: So here are two really big questions we have on this story. Number one, why in the world was God consulting Abraham about this? Couldn't God have made this decision on His own? And it seems like God doesn't even listen to Abraham in the end, God just destroys the city anyway.
David: Number two, what was Abraham even arguing for? It seems like there are two possibilities. Either Abraham was asking if the righteous people would be saved, while the wicked were killed, or he was asking if everyone could be saved, on account of those righteous people.
Why Did God Destroy Really Sodom and Gomorrah?
Immanuel: But neither of these possibilities makes much sense to begin with. If God is saying He is destroying the city, wouldn't He have taken the righteous people into account from the get-go? Abraham can't be teaching God the rules of the Geneva convention. And even if he was, the bargaining wouldn't make much sense. Fifty people as collateral damage is bad, but nine is okay?
David: And if Abraham was asking for the wicked to be saved on account of the righteous, where's the justice in that? Do righteous people have special powers, where they meditate and extend their prophetic auras to shelter evil people? Why is that something Abraham's interested in?
Immanuel: Question number three, the conversation between God and Abraham ends super abruptly. Abraham had just asked God if 10 people were enough to spare the city, God says yes, and then God just leaves. וַיֵּלֶךְ יְהוָה--כַּאֲשֶׁר כִּלָּה, לְדַבֵּר אֶל-אַבְרָהָםוֹ – God left as soon as he finished talking to Abraham. He never says: "Ten is fine, but there aren't even 10...so I guess I have to destroy the city." He just leaves. What's going on here?
David: Maybe their conversation wasn't really over...
Immanuel: Hi everyone. I'm Imu Shalev.
David: And I'm David Block.
Immanuel: Welcome to the Parshat Experiment.
The Story Surrounding Sodom and Gomorrah
Immanuel: This week's parsha is full of some of our favorite Abraham stories. Even though we picked some pretty interesting questions to address this week, we unfortunately can't get to every exciting story. Just to frame our questions, here's a 20-second parsha recap:
- Three men visit Abraham and they share that news that Sarah will have a child.
- Then God tells Abraham about his plans to destroy Sodom, and it seems that Abraham tries to convince God not to...
- Then angels go to Sodom to save Lot.
- Sodom is destroyed, and something weird happens with Lot and his daughters.
- There's a famine, and Abraham goes down to Gerar to get food… and he says – again – that Sarah is his sister.
- Isaac's born.
- Hagar and Ishmael are sent away.
- Abraham makes a covenant with Abimelech.
- And then we have the Binding of Isaac.
Immanuel: Okay, back to Sodom and God and Abraham's strange conversation. We know that it seems to end abruptly, but what if the conversation wasn't really over? What if God sort of kept it going in some way?
David: What do you mean by that?
Immanuel: Take a look at what happens next in the story. The Torah cuts to Sodom for its impending destruction, but that's not what the text focuses on. Instead, we read about the angels who are here to save someone... presumably, a righteous person, Lot, from the impending destruction.
David: Right, it sorta looks like Abraham failed to convince God, there weren't 10 righteous people, and now God is going to airlift Lot out of the city.
Immanuel: But not just yet.
Ten Righteous People to Stop Sodom and Gomorrah's Destruction
Immanuel: The angels arrive in the city, and Lot takes them in as guests. And it seems like the text is drawing a parallel – just as Abraham does chesed, kindness, with these men, Lot does kindness with them as well. Lot is continuing the legacy of Abraham, doing good in a city of evil.
David: But he's not exactly like Abraham. After Lot takes the men into his home, things go south, very quickly. The people of Sodom are really angry – they seem to hate the kindness to strangers – and they demand that Lot turn the people over to them. Lot tries to convince the mob not to harm the guests. And look at how the people react:
Immanuel: "וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֶחָד בָּא-לָגוּר" – and they said, "this guy – Lot – came to live here – וַיִּשְׁפֹּט שָׁפוֹט–עַתָּה – and now's he's going to be a judge over us??" Lot stands up for justice and kindness... but unfortunately, he fails to influence the people of Sodom. The mob starts to press in on the house and the situation becomes dire.
David: The angels reveal to Lot that the city is about to be destroyed, and that they are here to save him. But the angels aren't just here to save Lot, they're here to save some other people too. They ask him: עֹד מִי-לְךָ פֹה–חָתָן וּבָנֶיךָ וּבְנֹתֶיךָ, וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ בָּעִיר: הוֹצֵא, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם." "Who else is here? Your son-in-law, your sons, your daughters, and whatever else you have in the city, take them out of this place."
So let's count:
- Lot's sons-in-law – we see later that there are two.
- His sons – and the plural language of "בניך" indicates that there were at least two.
- And then בנותיך which is also plural – at least two daughters. That's six.
Immanuel: Now, you'd assume that those two daughters were the wives of his two sons-in-law. But earlier in one of the most horrible parts of the story, to appease the mob that was trying to get at Lot's guests, Lot tried to send out his two unmarried daughters. The verse says: "הִנֵּה-נָא לִי שְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ אִישׁ" – here are my two daughters who have not been with a man. So he actually has four daughters – two married, two unmarried. That's a total of eight people. Add Lot and his wife? And we're at 10 people…
David: So you're saying…
Immanuel: Yup. If there were going to be 10 righteous people in the city of Sodom, could it be that Abraham was talking about Lot's family? Abraham was pleading with God to spare the city, on account of Lot!
Here's what we think happened: when God and Abraham were haggling on the number of righteous people and they stopped at 10, God isn't abruptly ending the conversation. He doesn't say, "Sorry, Abraham, there aren't 10" – He gives Lot and his family a chance.
Could Abraham and Lot Have Saved Sodom From Destruction?
David: And here's what happens: the angels tell him to gather his family. And it seems that Lot tried… but was unsuccessful. "וַיֵּצֵא לוֹט וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל-חֲתָנָיו לֹקְחֵי בְנֹתָיו," Lot went to speak to his sons in law וַיֹּאמֶר קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה, כִּי-מַשְׁחִית יְהוָה, אֶת-הָעִיר – and he said, "get up and leave this place, because God is going to destroy this city!" But they don't heed his warning. "וַיְהִי כִמְצַחֵק, בְּעֵינֵי חֲתָנָיו" – but Lot was as a joker in their eyes. They didn't take him seriously.
Immanuel: The story of Lot in Sodom seems to emphasize two things:
1) Lot is sort of a righteous person. He is kind to strangers just like Abraham is kind to strangers, and he doesn't deserve to be destroyed along with the wicked.
2) Lot may be a good person, but he never seems to convince anyone else to become a good person either. He stands up against the mob, but fails miserably.
David: He isn't even able to influence his sons-in-law, his daughters, and his own sons, Lot can't convince anyone to come with him other than the people directly dependent on him: his wife and two daughters. In short, Lot's influence doesn't even extend over his family...10 people.
Immanuel: God told Abraham that if there were 10 righteous people, Sodom wouldn't be destroyed. It seems that if Lot would have been able to get his family together, that would've been the 10 righteous people, and that would've been the conclusion to the conversation between God and Abraham: Yes – there are 10 good people! Sodom will be saved…. But Lot failed.
David: Right – Ironically, if he was able to get his own family together to leave, maybe they wouldn't have had to leave.
Immanuel: If Lot's challenge as a righteous person was to influence and convince others, would that help us to understand a little bit more about God and Abraham's bargaining session?
Abraham and Lot's Mission in the Story of Sodom and Gomorrah
David: Maybe Abraham was asking God: "What if there are 50 tzadikim – 50 good people (or 45, or 40, or 30) he wasn't just asking about righteous people in the city, meditating and creating a spiritual force field to spare the evil people. Abraham was talking about righteous people who had the potential to positively influence others.
Immanuel: If, in the city of Sodom there's real potential to impact, to change, to improve; if there are people there who can positively influence Sodom to embrace righteousness, then it's not really an evil city. It's a righteous city in progress. Because that seems to be the role of a righteous person – they don't just sit alone and do good all by themselves. They're supposed to influence others. And if there's one righteous person, there should be 10.
David: So why is God involving Abraham in all of this? Why is it any of his business? Well...where else have we seen the idea of people whose job it is to impact with good?
Immanuel: Ummm, that's exactly what we said Abraham's mission was last week. In their first-ever encounter, God said to Abraham "וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה" – through you, all the people of the world will be blessed. Abraham was familiar with the concept of positively impacting a community because he was supposed to be a model of good values.
David: And take a look at the verses right before the conversation, when God decides to tell Abraham about the plan to destroy Sodom. We get a very rare glimpse into God's own mindset: " וַיהוָה, אָמָר:" – and God said, to Himself, it seems… "הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה" – can I hide what I'm doing from Abraham? וְאַבְרָהָם–הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וְעָצוּם; – Abraham is going to be a big, strong nation… וְנִבְרְכוּ-בוֹ--כֹּל, גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ – and through him, all the nations of world will be blessed.
Immauel: Look at that, there's that phrase again – וְנִבְרְכוּ-בוֹ–כֹּל, גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ… the words that encapsulate Abraham's entire mission – to bring blessing to the world, to be a model nation. And the pasuk teaches us that it's because of that mission that God chooses to tell Abraham about Sodom.
David: But God continues, כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו – for I know Abraham – לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה – to the extent that he'll command his children and his household afterward to keep the path of God. And what's that path? לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט – to do righteousness and justice.
Immanuel: Look at what's going on here. For the first time, we actually get sense of what Abraham's mission is. Yeah, he's supposed to be a model of goodness… but in what way? לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט – in teaching righteousness and justice.
The Real Reason God Destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah
David: Last week, we learned about Abraham selflessly focusing on God's legacy instead of his own, but this adds a layer of depth to Abraham's mission though – selflessness isn't just about focusing on God… it's about focusing on other people too. It's about doing and teaching righteousness and justice in human relationships as well!
Immanuel: And because of that mission, God chooses to engage Abraham in the conversation. It seems that God wants to teach Abraham something about his mission – about the power of influence…
David: Abraham is confronted with the possible destruction of Sodom and is forced to consider what might save them. And he quickly realizes that the fate of the people in the city rests on the shoulders of the righteous whose job it is to teach the qualities of justice and kindness. So Abraham dares to ask: "God, what if there are 50 righteous people in the city – doesn't that show that there's potential for larger change?"
Immanuel: And God says, yes! Exactly! This story shows us a beautiful teachable moment: God's willingness to save a whole city because of the potential of influencers shows Abraham the power of his own potential to be a positive force of goodness to those around him.
David: And the Lot story is there to show us – the reader – the stark contrast between Lot and Abraham – someone who tries and fails at influencing and someone who tries and succeeds.
Immanuel: We saw last week that after a bunch of failures of mankind, God created a Plan C – God chose someone, Abraham, to bring blessing to the rest of the world. This week's parsha gives us even deeper insight into that mission. God teaches Abraham to become a role model of how to treat other people – with tzedek u'mishpat, and his responsibility to teach others to be kind and just too.
David: Justice, kindness towards others, the focus on the relationship with God – these are the central values that will appear as we continue to read through the Torah. Abraham, and the great nation that God will establish through him, will be the ambassadors of these values.
Immanuel: But we're a long way away from that great nation and its birth in the Book of Exodus. How will Abraham succeed at teaching his values to the next generation and ensuring that his legacy – God's legacy – endures?
David: Join us next time on the Parsha Experiment.