Noah’s flood and Sodom and Gamorrah are two of the most chilling examples of God’s judgement in all of Torah. I’ve often talked about how Noah reacts to the coming of the flood in relation to how Avraham reacts to Sodom. But I’ve never really gone into depth on what Avraham actually does. Well I’m in luck because parshas Vayeira is the portion where it happens!
Setting the Scene
Avraham has just given himself a bris milah (and he wasn’t even a Mohel, ouch!) Suddenly 3 travelers come and Avraham springs up to give them 5 star guest service. But the travelers are actually angles on their way to destroy Sodom. As Avraham sees his guests out, God tells Avraham why He is sending them to Sodom.
God said, “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am about to do? (Bereishis 18:17)
God starts having a debate with Himself about whether or not to consult with Avraham. But with Noah’s flood, God makes His decision, then tells Noah to build an ark. No if, ands, or buts about it. Why does God pause here?
The profound difference between Noah and Avraham was the quality of chessed or loving-kindness. Noah was a pious man, but he didn’t make attempts to reach people. Avraham on the other hand, made it his mission to care for others, give hospitality, and talk with his guests in the ways that they’d understand. Avraham was involved in the world where Noah isolated himself from it. And in taking responsibility for the world, he became a partner in the ownership of the world. So with Avraham, God understood that to destroy part of it, he needed to consult with Avraham first.
Bartering with God
Avraham came forward and said, “Will You destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous people in the midst of the city. Would You still destroy it, and not bear wth the place for the sake of fifty righteous people inside it? It would be sacrilege [to attribute] to you such an act, to kill the righteous with the wicked… Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice? (Bereishis 18:22-25)
I have to say, Avraham has some chutzpa here arguing with the creator of the world. But God actually agrees with him.
“If, in Sedom, I find fifty righteous people… I will bear with the entire place for their sake.”
God checks his facts and sure enough, nope. Not even 50 righteous people in the city of Sodom. Then Avraham tries, What if there are 45? God agrees, but still can’t find 45 good people. So Avraham goes for 40. Then 30, then 20, and finally he gets to 10. When God says He can’t find 10 righteous people in Sodom, that’s the end of the conversation.
What is Avraham doing here? Is he trying to pinpoint the exact number of people it takes for God to destroy a city? Maybe develop some ratio of wicked people to destruction algorithm? If that’s the case, why does he give up once he reaches 10? What if there’s one righteous person?
To the Power of 10
When Avraham was arguing for 50 people, he didn’t pluck that number out of thin air. Sodom was a metroplex of 5 cities. We know this because of the Torah quote: “He overturned these cities…” (Bereishis 19:25). Avraham was looking to see if there were 10 righteous individuals in each city. Why 10?
We have 10 fingers. 10 toes. Our numbering system is based on 10. Spiritually there are 10 levels of angels and 10 sephirot in Kabbalah. But also, in order to do a full prayer service there must be 10 men. It’s called a minyan. (Why not women? That’s another discussion about the spiritual natures of man and women.) Some say that there is a spiritual level that is achieved when 10 men come together to pray. Others say that once you have 10, you have a unit, much in the way our numbering system makes units of 10. But Rabbi Noach Weinberg took this idea of ten and went out from the prayer shul and brought it to the world at large. One of his core beliefs was that with 10 individuals you could change the world. From that mentality he created Aish HaTorah.
It was this idea, that with 10 good, committed, and righteous people, Avraham could make real, lasting change to the cities of Sodom. When God says there aren’t 50, Avraham goes down to 45. Why 45? Because then he could go to each individual city and be the 10th man himself. With each 10 that Avraham drops down, he has to let go of saving a city. When he finally can’t get even 10, he knows he’s done. Why? Because of Noah. The ark had 8 individuals. Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives. (To think, had Noah reached out to two more individuals, possibly even just one, he could have saved the world.)
Changing Your World
Over the past months we’ve all become increasingly aware that our world needs some sort of profound and lasting change. That the way things have been going are troublesome at best, catastrophic at worst. But despite this realization, sentiments of, “What can you do?” persist. I’ve even heard religious people say, “It’s all in God’s hand.” And although I acknowledge it is all in God’s hands, that doesn’t free us from the obligation of taking responsibility for things that need to be changed. That’s what Avraham did and Noah didn’t.
Now am I not saying go lead a revolution against some establishment or government. But there are things in your world that you see every day that you know shouldn’t be there. A litter filled playground, an irresponsible practice at work, a stop light that should have a protected turn arrow. I guarantee, for any of those, if you got 10 dedicated, smart, and good people working together, you could get those things changed. But for the big problems, money in politics, honest reporting, climate change (man made or not, it’s a problem), or whatever huge bad in the world you don’t think is going away anytime soon… for that cause… Judaism and the Torah tell us, go out and find 9 other people who care as much about it as you do. With rational discussion, careful listening, and authentic determination, you can make an honest effort. It’s only when you’ve made that effort that you can say, “It’s all in God’s hands.”