Parashat Vayera: Seeing the Good

What we will examine is why Abraham thought, and God agreed, that it was enough to find 10 righteous people to warrant saving the entire evil city from punishment.

‘THE DESTRUCTION Of Sodom And Gomorrah,’ John Martin, 1852 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘THE DESTRUCTION Of Sodom And Gomorrah,’ John Martin, 1852
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In Parashat Vayera, we read the story of the city of Sodom. The people of Sodom deteriorated to abominable behavior and their society became morally corrupt, committing acts of burglary, murder and rape. As a result of this continuous depravity, God decided to destroy the city. But first he shared his plan with Abraham, the man who publicized God’s name in the world by spreading justice and loving-kindness.

We might have expected Abraham to be happy about this news, about evil being punished. But that’s not what happened. Abraham begged God to look at all the people in Sodom, asking him to save the city even if there were only 50 righteous people among them. When God does not find 50 righteous people, Abraham keeps begging, dropping the number gradually until he gets to 10. When it becomes clear that there are not even 10 righteous people in the entire city, Abraham surrenders and stops praying to save Sodom.

What we will examine is why Abraham thought, and God agreed, that it was enough to find 10 righteous people to warrant saving the entire evil city from punishment. Couldn’t those 10 righteous people be rescued and the rest of the city be punished?!

To answer this question, we will look at something said by the sages of the Mishna: Judge all men with the scale weighted in their favor (Pirkei Avot 1:6).

Different interpretations have been offered to this Mishna. One of the most fascinating of them is attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He said that when we look at others carefully, we should always search for their good attributes. Even when it is a person who conducts himself badly or immorally, even then, we must see the good in them since it is impossible that there is a person – even the most corrupt one – who does not occasionally do good deeds. This does not mean that we should ignore others’ negative behavior, or see them as positive. The sages of the Mishna ask us to shine a light on the positive things we see around us and to focus on those.

Two pages from the first complete Mishna (credit: Courtesy)Two pages from the first complete Mishna (credit: Courtesy)

Usually, when we examine ourselves, we are critical and tend to focus on the negative and inappropriate things we have done. The sages of the Mishna ask us to use that same positive outlook when we are introspective, focusing on our positive deeds and traits. 

By doing so, not only can we live in peace and joy with our surroundings and with ourselves, but it also leads to real change. When we see someone in a positive light, he himself manages to see that same goodness in himself and manifest it. The same is true when we look inside ourselves. Focusing on our good points is the key to being able to make real change, to make ourselves better people. This is the deeper intent of the saying, “judge all men with the scale weighted in his favor.”

Our patriarch Abraham does not ask God to ignore the sins of Sodom for a handful of people. He asks God to shine a light on the righteous people who live in Sodom and focus on the good in it, thus allowing the people of the city to undergo a process of real transformation. When it became clear that the city of Sodom is not capable of containing even a handful of good people, and evil and corruption have consumed even the remnants of good people, it was obvious that they needed to get the full extent of God’s punishment.

Modern therapists recognize this phenomenon that the sages point to, in light of the interpretation of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. By tilting the balance toward positive feelings when we examine ourselves, our partners, and our environment – not through a critical prism, and not by ignoring what needs to be repaired, but by focusing on the good points – we can inundate these relationships with joy and create space for personal and moral growth for ourselves and for all those around us. 

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