Parashat Vayera: Abraham, Sodom, and the yield of insanity

A person can sin; Everyone sins sometimes; The important question is not “Do I sin?” but rather “Am I aware of the fact that I am sinning?”

November 17, 2016 18:52
3 minute read.
Painting by Yoram Raanan

Painting by Yoram Raanan. (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)


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In this week’s parasha of Vayera, for the first time, we encounter Abraham as he prays. Prayer is neither a ceremony nor a chore. Prayer is turning to God – the Lord of everything, asking that He give us what we lack and give us a good life.

Abraham prays. What does he request? Nothing for himself. He prays for other people, for the people of Sodom, those same people whom the Torah calls “very evil and sinful against the Lord.” These were the people he prayed for.

The story of this prayer is fascinating. Abraham experienced a revelation in which he was told that the city of Sodom was to be destroyed due to the terrible acts of its citizens. They steal, they rape, they reject the needy.

They are bad people. We might have thought that Abraham, who stood for righteous behavior and justice, whose entire worldview was diametrically opposed to the behavior of the Sodomites, would be pleased to hear this news about Sodom being slated for destruction. But Abraham surprises us. He chooses to pray.

And what does he ask of God? Perhaps there are 50 righteous men in the midst of the city; will You even destroy and not forgive the place for the sake of the 50 righteous men who are in its midst? (Genesis 18:24) After his prayer is accepted, but it turns out that there aren’t 50 righteous men in Sodom, he continues to plead – Maybe there are 45 righteous men? Maybe 40? Would 30 suffice? And 20? How about 10? Each request is answered in the affirmative. Indeed, God answers, if there are 10 righteous men in Sodom, "I will not destroy for the sake of the 10." (18:32) And here Abraham stops. He does not continue to ask. He understands that if there aren’t 10 righteous men in Sodom, the city and its residents have no right to exist.

This prayer is interesting. Why can 10 righteous men save an entire city? Sodom was heavily populated and 10 people would be a small percentage of the population.

Why would the evil inhabitants be saved if they just happened to have righteous neighbors? Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (one of the great leaders of the hassidic movement, from Ukraine, at the end of the 18th century) offered an interesting answer in his unique style. He does not ask and does not answer, but rather tells an imaginary story and leaves us to think of the message. Here is his story: There was a king who had a dream, and in his dream he saw that the yield that was going to grow that coming year would be a strange yield and that anyone who would eat from it would go insane. What should be done?

The king summoned his closest adviser and told him of the dream. The adviser suggested that the king save some of the yield of the previous year and eat only from that. But the king rejected this suggestion with the following brilliant claim: If only the king maintains his sanity when all rest of the citizens go insane, they will all think that he – the king – is crazy. So the adviser thought of another idea: The king would eat from the crazy yield like all the other citizens and go insane too, as would the adviser. But prior to eating from the strange yield, they would each make a mark on their foreheads so they would remember that they are insane. Thus, despite their insanity, they would be able to administer the land sanely. They would go insane, but at least they would be aware of the fact that they were crazy.

This story helps us to understand the secret of Abraham’s prayer. If there were 10 righteous men in Sodom, the people of Sodom could plummet to the depths of evil, but would still have a vivid reminder of the fact that they were on a mistaken path. There would still be 10 righteous men who do not allow them to sink into evil to the point that they would completely lose their moral compass.

A person can sin. Everyone sins sometimes. The important question is not “Do I sin?” but rather “Am I aware of the fact that I am sinning?” Awareness of sin, of human weaknesses, of moral missteps – awakens the conscience. Awareness brings about regret, requests for forgiveness, and repentance. Without it, we would lose all hope.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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