Bad and Badder
This week’s Torah portion has an episode that illustrates why Avraham was great and why God choose him to be the source of blessing for all the nations throughout history. Yet even so, someone far lesser than him was able to achieve something quite remarkable that even he couldn’t do.
When God informs Avraham that He wishes to wipe out Sodom, Gemorrah and their surrounding cities, Avraham comes to their defense. Avraham, feeling a responsibility for all people, quickly begins to advocate for those whom even God deems evil. He makes the argument that it would not behoove the Almighty to destroy the good with the evil in one fell swoop. Avraham gets quite forceful in his presentation and claims it would be profane to do such an act, “To destroy the good along with the wicked. It would be sacrilegious of You! Shall the Judge of the entire earth not Himself act justly?!” Fighten’ words indeed.
Avraham then gets specific in his negotiations with God to ascertain how many good people would be the minimum to get the place spared. He starts at fifty but successfully gets God down to a mere ten. A minyan one supposes and the bare-bones minimum quorum of decent people that maybe can turn the society away from their wickedness.
But try as he may, Avraham in the end was not successful. And although we give him much credit for trying and commend him for his sense of responsibility that he undertook to save even the most depraved of men, when all was said and done, he failed. Right after his pleadings the Torah narrates how the angel made its way to Sodom and its environs to destroy it.
But then things take a strange turn of events. Another angel is sent to spare Avraham’s nephew, Lot who was living in Sodom, to tell him to get the heck out of Dodge and hole up in the nearby mountains. For some reason Lot feels he cannot make it and implores the angel to save one of the cities that was destined for destruction to be spared so he can flee there. And lo and behold, his request is granted and he is told, “Ok, I have granted you consideration even for this; I will not overturn the city that you have spoken about.”
This is somewhat surprising and should make you wonder. How is it that the great Avraham – the father of the Jewish people, the one whom God makes a covenant with and speaks with on a regular basis – was not able to successfully save any of these cities, yet Lot – who is not the most respected biblical figure – pulls it off? Avraham begs, pleads and argues with God to spare the region from Divine punishment – all to no avail, yet Lot’s request to save one of the cities is granted.
There are probably a couple factors involved, one being that Lot is pleading for his life. A very personal and heartfelt request is sometimes a more effective prayer than even one made by a great man like Avraham. But a deeper idea is revealed in the way Lot makes his plea to the angel (19:20) הִנֵּה נָא הָעִיר הַזֹּאת קְרֹבָה לָנוּס שָׁמָּה וְהִוא מִצְעָר אִמָּלְטָה נָא שָׁמָּה הֲלֹא מִצְעָר הִוא “Look, please, there is this close city to flee to and it is young. Please, let me escape to it. Isn’t it (just a) young (city)?”
Twice Lot mentions the fact that the city is מִצְעָר which some translate as small but in fact means young. What Lot was pointing out is that there is a difference between this one particular city versus the other surrounding ones. It is young. Either it is a newer city or its inhabitants are younger. Whatever the case, the implication is that it is not as set in its ways and steeped in evil to the same degree that the older, long established Sodom and Gemorrah are. Hence it is not necessarily worthy of destruction. Rashi says this was instrumental to Lot’s successful plea. “Are not its sins but few that would allow you to leave it alone?” Because of its youth, there is the chance that it might be more open to reform and correction, not the case with the others.
The difference between Lot’s approach and Avraham’s was based on the simple fact that Lot, living among the people in the towns of Sodom, Gemorrah and nearby, was more familiar with the various nuances of the locale. To Avraham the outsider, it was all a bad place and his tact to save it was maybe there were enough righteous individuals that could redeem it. But Lot lived there and was sensitive and aware of the differences between the bad areas and the really really bad areas.
It would be akin to someone who avoids a particular neighbourhood deeming the whole area unsafe. But those who live in that neighbourhood will tell you which are the dangerous streets to avoid and which are not so terrible.
The founder of Aish, Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l extended this lesson to his students to teach that sometimes we, who grew up and live among our fellow Jews who are far from Judaism, can have a better understanding of the mentality and world-view of the typical secular Jew and can use this in beneficial ways. Given our past experience and history, we can have an impact on others moreso than even the greatest and most respected rabbis who seldom leave the confines of their very religious neighborhood and don’t fully understand the subtleties of the non-religious environment. We can reach and touch another Jew more effectively, much the same way that Lot was able to successfully save some from his locale, a feat that even the great Avraham was not able to do.
Similarly, whether in a family or business setting, the person who is far from the top of a given hierarchy can often offer valuable advice to those above them because of the very fact that they are down among the nitty-gritty, everyday worker and employee. How often do politicians err because they lose touch with the everyday man or woman and don’t listen to those living in Sodom or walk the streets of Baltimore? On a personal note, I sometimes find myself consulting one of my children about their sibling because they can offer insights and ideas that I and Karen will miss.
Lot could not hold a candle to Avraham when it came to most things. But in this one instance he indeed bested his uncle. When all was said and done, he saved one of the cities bound for destruction. Avraham did not.
It is an invaluable lesson to us all to listen to the Lots of the world. To see what they see and feel what they feel. And just as importantly, when we find ourselves in Lot’s place where we can right a wrong, we should not be intimidated or nervous that the powers that be have not fixed the situation. Because there is a good likelihood that we see and hear things they are missing. And who knows, just like Lot, our words, prayers, pleas and ideas may very well save an entire city.
Well, the midnight gangs assembled
And picked a rendezvous for the night
They’ll meet beneath that giant Exxon sign
That brings this fair city light
Man there’s an opera out on the Turnpike
There’s a ballet being fought out in the alley
Until the local cops
Rips this holy night…
Down in Jungleland