Sunday, October 21, 2007

Parshat Vayera 2

In our Torah portion Avraham argues with G-d over the fate of Sodom and Gomorra. When G-d tells him that these cities are about to be destroyed for their wickedness Avraham begins protracted negotiations to try and save the inhabitants. “Perhaps there are fifty righteous people in the city?”... “Maybe there are forty five”... until finally “Would you destroy the city for the sake of ten [righteous people]?” (Genesis 18; 24-32).
Rashi explains that Sodom was actually a metropolis of five separate cities, so that when Avraham mentioned fifty he was praying that G-d save all five cities for the sake of ten righteous people in each. Similarly, forty, thirty, twenty and ten were entreaties to spare at least some of the cities if any would contain ten righteous people. When Avraham asked whether there were forty five righteous people he was asking G-d to make up the minyan (so to speak) if there were at least nine righteous people in each city. When he realised that there were not even nine people worthy of being saved Avraham conceded defeat and stopped praying on their behalf. Rashi adds that Avraham did not pray on behalf of less than nine, because he knew that in the time of Noach there were eight righteous people (Noach, his wife, their three sons and their wives), yet that was not sufficient to avoid the flood.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz asks how Avraham could have taken Noach as his role model? Isiah describes the flood as the “waters of Noach” (54; 9), and the commentaries there explain that the flood is called Noach’s flood because he is held partially responsible. He should have prayed for his generation to be spared, but instead he was only concerned with saving himself and his family. If Noach is criticised for not having prayed, how could Avraham have learnt from him? Conversely, if there were only eight righteous people in Noach’s time, and that was not enough to save the world, why is he held accountable for not having prayed?
The Rabbis tell us that before Pharaoh decided to kill all the baby boys born to the Israelites in Egypt he asked his three main advisors for their opinion. Bilam encouraged him, and was eventually killed, Job remained silent, and was later afflicted with great suffering, and Jethro fled, and merited that his descendants would be part of the Jewish nation. Clearly there was no way of preventing Pharaoh from carrying out his evil intentions, which is why Jethro was forced to flee. If so, why was Job punished for his silence, even had he protested it would not have changed the outcome?
We have a tradition that punishment from G-d is never vindictive, but is in order to correct a character flaw that led to the transgression. Rabbi Shmuelevitz explains that the afflictions of Job were not in order to make him suffer, but to make him cry out to G-d. His silence in Pharaoh's court showed that he didn’t identify with the pain and suffering of others. How could anyone remain silent when they hear about such a monstrous plan. He was not being punished for not preventing Pharaoh's decree, for that was impossible, but for not having cried out at the anguish of others.
This is the same reason that Noach is held responsible for the flood. Not that his prayers could have averted G-d’s decree of destruction for the world, because he knew that G-d would not spare the entire world for the sake of only eight people. But nevertheless, he should not have remained silent. Because he did not identify with the suffering of others he was forced to tend to and care for all the animals in the ark for a year. He soon learnt the importance of caring for the needs of others.
Avraham on the other hand had already prayed so hard for the people of Sodom that he was forced to apologise for his behaviour. Once he reached a point where he knew that his prayers would be futile he desisted from his protest, but only after he had shown how sympathetic he was to their plight. This is why Noach is criticised for his actions, while Avraham is praised.

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