And Abraham drew near and said, ‘Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?’ … ‘Shall the Judge of the earth not do justice?’ Genesis 18:23, 25
Immediately after learning of God’s plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Amorah, Abraham begins to plead for their mercy. Yet the difference between Abraham’s ethos and that of Sodom could not have been starker. While Abraham embodied the essence of chesed through acts of loving-kindness towards others, the citizens of Sodom exemplified precisely the opposite traits with their culture of ruthless, institutionalised brutality against outsiders.
Logically, Abraham should have been delighted to hear of Sodom’s imminent demise. Yet he confronted God and challenged Him over the decision. Why did Abraham argue with God, in Whom he had shown such profound faith and spare the lives of those who stood opposed to his principles?
To compound the question, King David writes (Psalms 104:35) Yitamu chataim min ha’aretz…,normally translated as ‘Let the sinners be removed from the earth…’ However, within this verse lies the answer to our question. The Gemara (Brachot 10a) records that Bruria, the wife of Rebbi Meir notes that the verse uses the term chataim, meaning sin, not chotim meaning sinners.
Abraham pleaded with God to help destroy the sin of Sodom, not the sinners themselves. He begged that God should help bring about their repentance and save them from destruction, reflecting his character of loving-kindness and compassion for human life.
The distinction is important; righteousness does not give man the license to be insensitive to the demise of evildoers. On the contrary, Abraham teaches us that a genuine love for mankind should initially elicit a hatred of evil, not of evil people. God however teaches Abraham that there will sadly be some who are beyond forgiveness and must be eliminated to purge the world of iniquity.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.