Genesis – Chapter 18

18:1  “Hashem appeared to him..”  – Rav Chama (Beva Metzia 86b) taught that it was the third day after Abraham’s circumcision (the third day after an operation being the most painful for adults (see 34:25); and God came and inquired after his welfare (Rashi).

The above reason for God’s visit is suggested by the fact that nowhere else in Scripture do we find God appearing without a direct communication immediately following.  Since no other reason is given for God’s appearance to Abraham, and since it is our verse that is traditionally cited in the Talmud (Sotah 14a) as the reason for visiting the sick – as the Talmud says: ‘imitate Hashem, He visits the sick’ ~ therefore, Rashi cites this tradition as the simple meaning of the text that this was God’s primary purpose.

The Midrash emphasizes that God appeared to Abraham as Hashem, as the God of Mercy and Healing ~ to Abraham but not to the other circumcised members of his household.

Hirsch explains: God’s Presence is everywhere but is not apparent to everyone.  Only after an act of devotion such as Abraham had just preformed, does it become apparent. 

‘..plains of Mamre’  – The Torah does not usually mention the sites of revelations; and we already know from 14:6 that Abraham’s house was in the plains of Mamre.  Rashi explains that the location is given because it was Mamre who had given Abraham encouraging advice regarding the circumcision.  Therefore, God honored Mamre by appearing to Abraham on his land.

This is where Abraham and his household were circumcised.  God appeared to Abraham and not to the others because he was the worthiest for that vision which had as its purpose the acknowledgement of the circumcision as the fulfillment of the Covenant.  Perhaps it is for this reason that it is customary to set a chair (of Elijah) at the circumcision) at which Elijah, as God’s emissary, acknowledges the fulfillment of the Covenant. (Sforno)

18:2  ‘..he lifted his eyes and saw..’  – Though God had appeared to him and, from the context, was still present, Abraham continued to be engaged in his work of seeking travelers to whom he could display hospitality.  Therefore, the verse says, ‘he lifted up his eyes’ implying that he was actively seeking out transients.

The word ‘behold’ suggests the unexpected – the men had not approached from afar, but were suddenly standing there as though materializing from thin air.

Three different angels were sent because each had a different function: One, Michael, to inform him of Sarah’s conception (v14); one, Gabriel, to overthrow Sodom (19:24); and one, Raphael, to heal Abraham for one angel does not perform two missions and likewise two angels do not perform one.  (Midrash, Rashi)

Rashi goes on to explain that the interpretation – that each mission was performed by a single angel rather than all the angels sharing the performance of each mission ~ is evident from the text itself, for the Torah speaks of their eating (v8) and talking (v9) in plural; while the performance of each of their commissions is related in the singular.  For example regarding the announcement of Sarah’s child (v10); and the destruction of Sodom (19:21, 22) the angels are referred to in singular, (especially 19:25: ‘he overthrew those cities’ (Bava Metzia 86b).  Raphael, who healed Abraham, went on from there to save Lot.  (That Raphael was charged with both missions did not violate the principle of ‘one angel does not perform two missions’ for the missions were not simultaneous as the second mission was in another place and the angel was commanded about it only after he had completed his first mission; therefore a fourth angel was not required.  Additionally, since healing and rescue are related missions, and both were done for the benefit of Abraham, one angel could be charged with both tasks (Ramban).

‘He perceived..’  – Rashi notes that this is the second time in this verse that the verb (‘and he saw’) appears.  He explains that the first time it has its ordinary meaning and he saw; the second time it means he understood; ‘perceived’!  First he saw that they remained standing near him but made no move toward him.  Then, he perceived that they did not wish to trouble him and he feared they were about to depart.  For their part, they knew he would take the initiative, but stood in a display of respect, to show that they wished to spare him any trouble.  Therefore, the verse continues ‘he ran towards them’.

18:3  ‘My Lord..’  – the word is sacred, referring to God.  Abraham was taking leave from God, imploring Him ‘to pass not away from Your servant’ but to wait while he attended to his guests.

In Talmud, Shabbos 127a, Rav Elazar writes: Come and observe how the conduct of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is not like that of mortals.  The conduct of mortals is such that an inferior person cannot say to a greater man: ‘Wait for me until I come to you’; whereas in the case of the Holy One, Blessed be He, Abraham asked Him to wait.

We know from Abraham’s behavior that hospitality takes priority over the Divine Presence, but how did Abraham know?

If a king is someone’s houseguest and, during the royal visit, the king’s child comes with an urgent request, the host will quickly care for the child.  The king will not feel slighted, for a service to his child is a service to him.  So, too, with Abraham.  After his circumcision, his every instinct and organ was devoted to God’s service.  By hurrying to extend hospitality to God’s creatures, he was still engaged in the service of God.

18:4  The phrase ‘let some water be brought’ indicates being brought by a servant and not himself.  Therefore, when Abraham’s descendants required water in the desert, God recompensed Abraham by providing them with water through his servant Moses – and not directly Himself – as it says in Numbers 20:11 ‘And Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock.’

Whatever Abraham personally did for the Ministering Angels, God did Personally for his descendants; and whatever Abraham did through an emissary, God did for his descendants through an emissary.  And as a reward for ‘let a little water be brought’, they were rewarded with Miriam’s well.

18:5  ‘a morsel of bread..’  – An understated, modest description of a lavish meal about to be served.  The Talmud derives from this that ‘the righteous say little and do much.’  (Bava Metzia 87a)

The Midrash notes that in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, we find that bread is the sustenance of the heart.  In the Torah this verse: ‘I will fetch a morsel of bread and sustain your heart; in the Prophets (Judges 19:5): ‘Sustain your heart with a morsel of bread’: and in the Writings (Psalm 104:15): ‘Bread sustains man’s heart..’

The term used in this verse for ‘heart’ is not the usual form l’vavchem’ which is a longer form for hearts denoting the heart as the seat of two Inclinations ~ Good and Evil.  Instead ‘libchem’ is used indicating only one heart, one inclination.  This teaches that angels are free of the Evil Inclination.  There was no conflicting desires in their hearts.  Their only desire was to do good.

‘Insomuch as’  –  Rashi comments: insomuch as, you have honored Me by calling upon Me.  This is the meaning of this phrase whenever it occurs in Scriptures (19:8; 33:10; 38:26; Numbers 10:31.

‘Do so, just as you have said’  – The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) notes that the angels accepted Abraham’s invitation immediately, whereas in the case of Lot, he had to ‘urge them greatly’ (19:3).

The ethical lesson derived from this is: one may show unwillingness to an inferior person, but not to a great man.

18:6  ‘Hurry’  – As soon as a man has taken hold of a Mitzvah (literally means commandment or a command of God), he must rush to bring it to a conclusion, not as thou he were anxious to get rid of a burden, but in the spirit of apprehension lest he fail to complete it… whatever the righteous undertake, they carry out with haste.  Of Abraham it is written: ‘Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, ‘Hurry, Three se’ahs of meal, fine flour, knead it and make cakes.’  And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf… “  We are similarly told of Rebecca, ‘And she hastened and emptied her pitcher into the trough” (24:20).  Commenting on the verse, “and the woman made haste, and ran, and told her husband’ (Judges 13:10), the Midrash adds, “We may learn that the deeds of the righteous are always performed with speed and efficiently; no time is lost in undertaking a Mitzvah or in the execution of it.”

See then that a man who is righteous does not act sluggishly in the performance of His Mitzvos.  He moves with the swiftness of fire, and gives himself no rest until his object is attained.  Note, further, that as enthusiasm calls forth zeal, so zeal calls forth enthusiasm, for when a man is engaged in the form of a Mitvah, he feels that as he hastens his outward movements, his emotions are aroused and his enthusiasm grows stronger.  But if his bodily movements are sluggish, the movements of his spirit also become lifeless and dull.

In the worship of the Creator, blessed be His Name, it is most important that the heart truly yearn after Him and the soul feel a longing for Him.

Therefore it were best for a man in whom his desire does not burn as it should, deliberately exert himself so that his zeal might become part of his nature, for the outer action awakens the inner attitude.  And the outer action being certainly more subject to a man’s control than the inner attitude, if he avails himself of that which is within his control, he will in time acquire that which is beyond his control.  As a result of deliberate effort, there will arise within him an inner joy and an ardent desire to do the will of God.

‘Knead and make cakes’  – Here, the word used is cakes, while in the case of Lot, the Torah specifically states that he served matzos, a thin unleavened bread, (19:3) in order that one chapter shed light on the other.  The entire Torah is filled with allusions and lessons, what one part omits is supplied by another.

Although it was obvious that flour must be kneaded to make dough, Abraham nevertheless specified to Sarah ‘knead it’.  He intimated to her that she should not share with a servant the mitzvah of hospitality, rather she should do even the kneading herself.  According to the Midrashic interpretation that it was Passover and these were matzos, the significance was that she should knead and make the cakes without any intervening delay, lest they become chametz (for when time allows, it ferments and becomes leavened bread.)

18:7  “Abraham ran to the herd,”  – Ramban emphasizes how this portrays Abraham’s great desire to show hospitality.  Though he had many servants eager to serve him and he was old and still weak from his circumcision he nevertheless personally ran to choose the animals for the meal.

We see similarly in the Talmud (Shabbos 119a) that although many of the Sages of the Talmud had servants, they would be scrupulous to participate personally in the Sabbath preparations, considering it a great honor: Rav Huna would light the lamp, Rav Papa would braid the wicks; Rav Chisdah would cut vegetables; Rabbah and Rav Yosef would chop wood; Rav Zeira would kindle the fire; and Rav Nochman would carry home the marketing.

Note: Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (Ukraine) was famous for his hospitality, to the point where he would perform even demeaning, menial chores to assure the comfort of his guests.  Once his father-in-law was annoyed with his excessive tasks: “For a few pennies, you can hire a servant to do those chores!’ he shouted.  Rabbi Levi Yitzchak replied, ‘Shall I give away the mitzvah of hospitality and even pay someone to take away my privilege?’

“..gave it to the servant..’  – The Talmud, noting that singular ‘it’ although there were three calves, answers that he gave each calf to a different young man to prepare ~ either in order to hasten the preparation process, or to train his men in hospitality.

18:8  Rashi says that even though there were three calves prepared, they served them as they became ready.  This also offers a solution to the question: ‘Why did Abraham seemingly serve meat and milk together in violation of the Kashrus laws?  Rashi’s explanation would thus imply that, following the order of the verse, Abraham first served the daily items for they naturally required less preparation and were ready first.  Only afterwards, after they satisfied their thirst, and hunger, did he bring out the full meal which consisted of calves meat.  From this we learn that butter and milk may precede meat.

18:9  ‘They said..”  – Midrash Sechel Tov notes that all three asked, for had only one asked he would have cast suspicion upon himself.  Subsequently, however, only the angel Michael conveyed the good tidings about the birth of a son.

‘.Where is Sarah..?’  – According to Rashbam the question was merely rhetorical, serving as an opening for their conversation, much in the manner that God asked Adam (3:9) “Where are you?”

Interestingly, according to Zohar, the angel’s question as to Sarah’s whereabouts was sincere for angels do not know what is happening in this world except what is necessary for their mission. (Tosafos Shabbos 12b)

18:10  “I will surely return..”  – Surely, the angel was not announcing that he would return, he was speaking only as God’s agent indicating that God would return; this is similar to the angel who addressed Hagar (16:10) in first person but was speaking only as God’s messenger.

Ibn Ezra adds as proof that the angel spoke in God’s Name, that in verse 14 God Himself reiterates that it is He Who will return.  Though it is not recorded that He did indeed return at the promised time, a reference to this return may lie in 21:1: “And Hashem remembered Sarah as He had said, and Hashem did to Sarah as He had spoken.”

“At this time next year..”  – It was Passover, and on the next Passover, Isaac was born.  There are differences of opinion as to when this visit took place: after Yon Kippur, or Passover.  There is, however, no dispute regarding Isaac’s birth; all agree he was born on the first day of Passover.  (Rosh Hashanah 11a)

In any case, the promise of the angel is this verse: “and behold Sarah your wife will have a son’ is not to be understood to imply that on this day next year ‘Sarah would give birth’, but that by this time next year Sarah will already have given birth on the original appointed day promised in 17:21 and will by then already have a son.

“Sarah was listening..”  – She did not merely happen to overhear; she was listening.  Although modesty kept her from the table, she did not want to miss the conversation, for Abraham’s every word with the guests was surely well worth the trouble of listening. (Hirsch)

18:11  “Abraham and Sarah were old,..”  – This expression is used to describe one upon whom old age weighs heavily; one who has ‘entered into those days’ when he knows he must go the way of all flesh; one upon whom life has taken it’s toll.

18:12  “Sarah laughed..”  – She laughed in disbelief because she thought that the guest’s statement was simply the courteous blessing of a human prophet (like that of Elisha – II Kings 4:16) and not a prophesy from God.  She thought, therefore, his blessing unattainable in view of her advanced age.  Such a miraculous rejuvenation would be as great a miracle as the resurrection of the dead, which only the command of God Himself could accomplish. (Radak, Sforno)

Note: A fundamental question arises: Abraham was already assured in 17:19 that Sarah would bear a son.  Why, then, does Sarah now react with incredulous disbelief after God Himself ~ only three days earlier ~ made the promise?

Ramban concludes that Abraham had not revealed to Sarah what God had told him before his circumcision.  Perhaps Abraham thought that God would undertake nothing until He revealed His plans to Sarah, His prophetess (see Amos 3:7).  Or it is possible that within the hectic days in which Abraham in righteous diligence undertook to circumcise himself and his household, and the painful days of convalescence that followed, Abraham neglected to mention it to Sarah.

Additionally, Sarah did not know they were angels, and therefore gave no credence to their words.

Hirsch points out: it appears that Abraham felt he had no right to tell Sarah because he had not been specifically told to do so.  Apparently, Sarah was meant to hear the news suddenly so that the very idea should appear ridiculous to her.  She would laugh just as Abraham did (17:17) (but for a different reason) and in the future they would always bear in mind that the birth of a child seemed to them to be an impossibility.

18:13  “..Hashem said to Abraham..”  – God Himself had been, if one may so express it, waited patiently while Abraham entertained the angels.  Now He interjects in response to Sarah’s unbelieving laughter.  Hashem accused her in Abraham’s presence of considering His promise to be impossible of fulfillment.

Why did God rebuke Sarah for her laughter and not Abraham for his (17:17)?  This is comparable to a wise woman who wished to rebuke her daughter-in-law.  Instead she directed her rebuke to her daughter, and the daughter-in-law understood the indirect message.  Here, too, God rebuked Abraham indirectly in order to spare his feelings.

Perhaps the meaning is that when the offense was duplicated, God no longer wished to overlook it.  He had not rebuked Abraham earlier but now that Sarah laughed too, He rebuked her for the offense, with the result that Abraham, too, was indirectly rebuked for his earlier laughter.

According to Midrash HaGadol, this teaches that when the lesser is rebuked, than the greater will understand also, but in the reverse case, if the greater were rebuked, the lesser might consider himself exempt because being greater obviously imposes greater obligations.

Since only Hashem holds the key to conception, it is He Who will cause her to give birth.  That being the case, age was never a factor because the laws of nature are neglected in the face of God’s will.

18:14  “Is anything beyond Hashem?”  – “Is anything so far distant and concealed from Me that I cannot accomplish whatever I wish?” (Rashi)   “Do I not know that Sarah is old?  Nevertheless, it is I Who promised, and there is no room for doubt!” (Abarbanel)

“At the appointed time..”  – “the time I originally intended when I promised you to return (17:21) ‘at this time next year!” (Rashi)

This intended time was Passover, when everyone agrees when Isaac was born. 

God Himself reiterated the promise now to reassure Abraham that in His displeasure with Sarah, He did not withdraw the promise, but that He would surely fulfill it at the destined time.

18:16  Two of the angels went on to Sodom, as it is written (19:1) and the two angels arrive in Sodom.

God, Himself, spoke to Abraham.  He had come to visit with Abraham in verse 1, and if one may so express it, had been waiting all this time while Abraham had taken leave of Him to show hospitality to his guests.

gazed down toward Sodom”  – The term “gazed down” is used because they were in Hebron, probably standing on one of the peaks of the Judean mountains from which they gazed down upon the panorama of the valley of Sodom.

Rashi notes that wherever the verb form of ‘gazing down’ occurs in Scripture (specifically in the Five Books of the Torah) it is always used in connection with calamity except in Deuteronomy 26:15 – “gaze down from Your holy habitation…and bless Your people.”  (The verse deals with declarations that the required tithes, including that given to the poor, have been given) for so great is the virtue of charity that it changes what would ordinarily be an expression foretelling evil, into mercy.

“Abraham walked with them’  – The Zohar emphasizes the importance of escorting a departing guest ~ Rav Yesa says: ‘That Abraham escorted them shows that he was not aware that they were angels; for if he was aware, what need had he to send them off?

Rav Elazar disagrees: ‘Although he knew, he kept to his usual custom with them and escorted them.  It is highly necessary for someone as a duty or responsibility to escort a departing guest, for this crowns a good act.

This is why the present tense ‘was walking’ is used, because this escorting is linked with the next verse.  For while Abraham was accompanying them, God appeared to him to reveal His intentions.  Thus, when one escorts his departing guests, he draws the Shechinah to accompany him on a way as a protection.

18:17  ‘..shall I conceal from Abraham..”  –  ‘Since I have given him this land, including these Sodomite cities (10:19), is it proper that I carry out my plan without his knowledge?  Furthermore, I called him Abraham the father of a horde of nations (17:5): should I then destroy the children (the Sodomites) without first informing the father who loves Me?’ (Rashi)

The prophet Amos similarly expressed it (3:7): ‘Surely My Lord Hashem/Elohim will do nothing without revealing His secret to His servants the prophets.’

From our verse we see why God reveals His ways to the prophets.  The reason is so that they can interpret historical events to their peers, making history a teacher of the people.  Abraham was not primarily a prophet to his own time – although he did proclaim the greatness of God.  His primary function was to teach the way of Hashem, to the future descendants of Israel.  In order that he might derive the appropriate lessons from the destruction of Sodom, God revealed what he intended to do.  (Hoffman)

Also, had Abraham not been given the opportunity to plead for Sodom, he would have thought that the destroying angels had done their work without sparing any righteous people, or that God had acted through the strict Attribute of Justice without tempering it with mercy.  Thinking it inconceivable that there were no significant numbers of righteous people even in Sodom, Abraham would have been deeply grieved.

18:18   Ramban interprets that God felt constrained to inform Abraham because, seeing that Abraham is destined to become a great and mighty nation, future nations will ask: ‘How could God have hidden this from him?’ or ‘How could Abraham have been so callous about his close neighbors that he refrained from praying on their behalf?’  He recognizes that I love righteousness, and he will charge his children to cultivate their virtues.  Now, if there is a righteous cause to pardon the Sodomites, he will beseech Me to do so.  If, on the other hand, they are completely guilty, he too, would desire that their judgment be carried out.

18:19  ‘For I have loved him..”  – The literal translation is ..known him.  The insight of know, as loved, follows Rashi who explains that affection is the secondary meaning of ‘know’, for one who loves another brings him close to himself and thus knows him well.

Hirsch’s interpretation also sheds some light.  He explains that to know means to perceive.  When the word refers to the relationship of a man to a woman, it designates the most intimate act of married life (4:1); concerning the relationship of God to man, it designates His special care, the special consideration of His protection or spiritual care.

There are those whose attitudes to God are merely casual, who allow other considerations to come before their obligations to God.  Such people are under His general protection, but God leaves them to the haphazard twists of life.

But there are people who place themselves completely under God’s guidance and wish only to be His messengers on earth, leaving everything else to Him.  God takes such people under His guidance and care.  Hirsch accordingly renders this verse as ‘For I have given him My special care so that he will command his children…’

It is noteworthy that Abraham’s greatness is ascribed to his role as spiritual mentor of his future generations.  Despite the many converts whom he and Sarah had brought under the wings of the Shechinah, it is not they who are mentioned in this testament to Abraham’s greatness – indeed, their belief in God did not survive the passing of Abraham.  It is clear that Jewish generations are built primarily upon the constant dedication of parents in raising their own children to walk the way of God in charity and justice.

“…keep the way of Hashem..”  – Hirsch explains that ‘the way of Hashem’ has a dual connotation: the way of God that He takes, and that which He wishes us to take.  The two are really identical, since the way of good runs parallel with the way in which God leads and guides the world.  That is why the way of the wicked clashes against it.  As the prophet Hosea says in 14:10 – “The ways of Hashem are right, the righteous walk in them but transgressors shall stumble in them.”

“..doing charity and justice..”  – The Talmud (Yevamos 79a) notes that the Israelite nation is distinguished in three ways: they are compassionate, bashful, and benevolent.  The last is derived from this verse – to do charity.

Rambam says, “We must therefore practice the mitzvah of charity more than any other because it is the characteristic of the true descendant of Abraham.

Hirsch continues that here the concept of righteousness precedes justice.  Sodom, too, had a kind of justice but it was far from God’s justice.  Sodomite justice became a double edged sword which lives by the saying “I keep what is mine, you keep what is yours!’  It’s philosophy branded the needy as criminals endangering the public welfare.  Rich men like Lot may be admitted, because they brought profit to the community, but ‘begging is prohibited’ and hungry unfortunates are jailed or told to move on.  Thus, justice without ‘tzedakah’ (acts of charity) becomes perverted into cruelty and harshness.  For this reason, in contrast, the testament of Abraham to his children stresses tzedakah before righteousness.

Rashi notes that since the verse says ‘upon Abraham’ rather than ‘upon Abraham’s children’, we may learn that he who leaves a son as righteous as himself is as though he had not died.  Therefore, Abraham himself – not spiritually dead because he left righteous children – will personally be the recipient of God’s blessings.

18:20  “..because the outcry..”  – The outcry of its rebellion against God or the outcry caused by its violence.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) specifically relates this to the incident of a young girl (some say she was Lot’s daughter, Pelotis) who, in defiance of the laws of Sodom which forbade the giving of charity, once carried out bread concealed in a pitcher to a poor man.  When the matter was discovered, they smeared her with honey and placed her atop a wall; bees came and consumed her.  In the opinion of the Sages, this was specifically the cry of the young girl, cruelly put to death, which finally sealed the fate of Sodom.

The Talmud records many similar instances of the horrendous deeds of the Sodomites.  To cite a few: They had beds upon which travelers slept.  If the guest arrived who wished to rest, he was lead to one of the beds.  If the guest was too tall, his feet would be cut off to make him fit; if on the other hand he was too short, they would stretch him out.  They would kill and steal the money of wealthy men who entered their cities.  If one laid out his fruits, they would each take a sample until nothing was left, claiming “I have taken only one.’

Also their laws were so unreasonable that the victim of a crime would often be fined!  Also, adultery, incest, and other sexual deviations were the norm.

It was these cries that ascended to God, and which caused the Rabbis to exclaim: ‘The people of Sodom have no share in the World to Come.’

18:21  “I will descend and see..”  – This is one of the ten instances that the Shechinah is recorded as having ‘descended’ into this world.

God obviously had no need to ‘descend’ in order to ‘see’ what was happening on earth.  Rashi therefore explains as in 11:5, the Torah uses this expression to teach a moral lesson: A judge must not render a verdict in capital cases without personally investigating the matter.

Ralberg also explains the ‘going down’ in the sense of testing them once more by sending two angels to them in the guise of men (Chapter 19) and seeing how the Sodomites will treat them – thus, indicating that their doom was not yet finally sealed and they were given a final opportunity to repent.

“ accordance with its outcry..”  – Rashi continues by saying the literal translation is ‘her outcry’ – the cry of a certain girl whom the Sodomites killed in an unnatural manner because she had given to the poor.  The sense, then, is that the girl’s cry ascended to God, and was indication of the city’s wickedness which had reached intolerable proportions.  God therefore resolved to make a personal investigation of the facts.

Midrash states: ‘She cried out: “Sovereign of the Universe!  Maintain my right and my cause at the hands of the men of Sodom!”  Her cry ascended to the throne of Glory and God said: ‘I will descend and see whether they have done in accordance with her cry which has come to Me, and if they have indeed done everything implied by the cry of that young woman, I will turn its foundations upwards and the surface downward…’

According to Ramban, the words ‘I will know’ implies ‘I will show divine Mercy’, as it does in Exodus 2:25 where ‘and God knew’ means He directed His mercies upon the children of Israel because He was aware of their sufferings.

18:22  Although the angels who were to destroy Sodom had already reached their destination, Abraham still stood in prayer on the Sodomites behalf.  This follows the Sages teaching (Berachos 10a): ‘One must not desist from prayer even when a sharp sword is upon his neck’.

18:23  Abraham Intercedes on Behalf of Sodom

In the following verses, Abraham exemplifies his new role as ‘father of a multitude of nations’ in its most noble form.

His intercession on their behalf demonstrates his cognizance of the need for both justice and mercy.  He recognized that only through merit could the wicked be saved, nevertheless he felt anguish at the thought that human beings were about to perish.  (Abarbanel)

It is this characteristic of Abraham – in contrast to Noah who held his peace when told of the impending flood – that has ennobled him as the compassionate Patriarch of the Jewish Nation.

Hoffman notes however, that to Noah the decree had already been decided ~ “The end of all flesh has come before Me…behold I am about to destroy them from earth (6:13)”.  No room was left for intercession, and indeed Noah maintained his silence because he thought the decree was irreversible.  However, to Abraham, God merely said that ‘because the outcries of Sodom were great’ He would ‘descend and investigate further’, thus affording Abraham the opportunity ~ as a father of a multitude of nations ~ to intercede on their behalf.

This is the first time we find one man praying on behalf of another.  Thus, Abraham mustered all his inner resources to intercede on behalf of the Sodomites.

Abraham pleaded that it would be proper ~ according to the Divine Attribute of Mercy ~ that God should spare the entire group of five cities if they contained fifty righteous men.  Furthermore, it would be inconceivable in any event ~ even according to His Attribute of Justice ~ that He slay the righteous along with the wicked (v25) for if so, ‘the righteous will be as the wicked’ and people will say it is vain to serve God.  This is the significance of the double use of ‘it is sacrilege to You’ (v25).  Once for the Attribute of Mercy and once for the Attribute of Justice, for actually there are two pleas in the following verses: a request that the entire city, including the wicked, be forgiven for the sake of the righteous, and that at the very minimum, the righteous be spared and not be stamped out along with the wicked.  Ramban concludes that God conceded that He would deal mercifully.  He notes that God’s Name is significantly written here as Hashem (signifying Divine Mercy), while Abraham addressed Him throughout the dialogue as Adonai (My Lord) signifying Divine Justice.  From this we infer that Abraham was under the impression that they would be judged only by Divine Justice.

18:24  “ the midst of the city..”  – i.e. righteous people who are openly God-fearing.  In other words the righteous must be ones who fear God not only in the safety and privacy of their homes, but ‘in the midst of the city’ playing a prominent part in public life and exerting their influences in its many fields of activity.  Only in such a manner, and not by remaining anonymous, could these righteous hope to possess the spiritual merit of saving the city.  If a moral climate of a city is such that it forced its righteous into seclusion, then that city is not worthy of being saved by virtue of a handful of men, who lead a secluded life within it.

Hirsch stresses the parallel between the deficiencies of Sodom and those of Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the First Temple.  There, too, righteous people were not ‘open’; they failed to fulfill their responsibility to influence their fellow man.  Thus, in Sodom as well, a person more righteous than his fellows could not earn salvation by withdrawing into his own private existence.  In Jeremiah 5:1, Radak comments that no one could be found ‘who acted justly and seeks the truth in the streets of Jerusalem’, for the righteous were forced to remain inside by the animosity of the wicked.  Therefore, there was no hope for the Holy City.

Abraham knew very well that there were no truly righteous people in Sodom.  If Lot was the greatest among them – and Abraham was painfully aware of Lot’s shortcomings – how righteous could the others be?  However, Abraham was also convinced that no matter how immersed Lot had become in the evil ways of Sodom, he could not have become deserving of destruction.

Abraham thought that there must be others who were similar, people who submitted to wrongdoers as long as they were flourishing, but who could be saved.  If Sodom were punished rather than destroyed, perhaps there were people who could take the lead in achieving repentance.  (Sefer HaParshios)

18:25  And should you maintain that the righteous cannot save the wicked, why, then, should you kill the righteous?  Even if my prayer prevails upon You to spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous, surely You will at least spare the righteous.  That they be spared is not a matter of special favor, for it is only justice that the presence of a significant number of righteous should be a reason for clemency.  (Rashi)

“to do such a thing”  – The Torah does not say ‘this thing’ but ‘such a thing’ implying – do neither this or anything like it – even of a lesser nature. (Midrash)  For example, were God to determine that the Sodomites deserved not total annihilation but punishment, these words would imply that God should not even afflict the righteous along with the wicked.  Each person has his own measure of guilt and should be punished only equivalent with his own wickedness.

“..righteous and wicked fare alike..’  – Ramban: ‘And if two are treated alike, people will say: It is vain to serve God.’  And if this comes about, Free Will and service of God will cease, and heresy will flourish in the world. (R’Bachya)  For although the righteous will undoubtedly receive their due reward in the Spiritual World, nevertheless their punishment will have an adverse effect in This World.  (Da’as Sofrim)

‘Shall the Judge of all the earth..”  – Malbim notes: You are the Judge over the entire earth and You must therefore scrutinize the righteous men of Sodom in comparison with their wicked contemporaries.  It is not proper for them to be swept away by the general destruction seeing that within their own environment they are considered righteous.

18:26  “..then I would spare the entire place..”  – God thus answered that He would go even beyond what Abraham requested.  ‘If fifty righteous people were found in Sodom, I will not only forgive the sins of the four other cities, I will even spare the entire place – even the surrounding villages for their sake.’ (Radak)

18:27  God acquiesces to Abraham’s petition.  Abraham realizes, however, that his first request would achieve nothing because fifty righteous men would not be found in Sodom.  But, encouraged by his success, he petitions further and begs God’s indulgence.

Although I am unworthy, my intention is not to dispute You. but merely to resolve my personal questions regarding Divine Justice and to fathom Your methods. (Sforno; Radak)

“..although I am but dust and ashes.”  – The sense of this verse then following Rashi: ‘Behold, now, I desired to speak to You because I have known from personal experience how, were it not for Your mercies, I would have been by now but dust and ashes.’  To dust by the kings (Chapter 14) and to ashes by the furnaces of Nimrod (11:28) had it not been for Your mercy.’

Abraham stressed his unworthiness in this way to eliminate any possible notion that he considered himself worthy and righteous enough in God’s eyes to pray on another’s behalf.  He therefore stressed that he felt compelled to present his pleas to God in spite of his unworthiness.

God said to Israel: I delight in you, because even as I bestow greatness upon you, you humble yourselves before Me.  I bestowed greatness upon Abraham, and he said ‘I am but dust and ashes.’  Upon Moses and Aaron and they declared (Exodus 16:8) ‘Yet what are we?’  Upon David and he declared (Psalm 22:7) ‘But I am but a worm, and no man.”  (Chullin 89a)

18:28  “What if the fifty righteous people should lack five?’  – According to the Midrash, Abraham’s question literally means: ‘What if there would be lacking the entire fifty righteous and there would be no more than five?  Abraham’s expressed intention being: Would you destroy the entire city despite the five? God therefore told him following the Midrash: ‘Revert to the beginning ~ to a number closer to your first and count down more gradually ~ it is too great a jump as five are too few a number to save the cities’.  God made this clear to him by His specifically worded response which completely clarified the double meaning:  “I will not destroy if I find there forty-five” ~ not the give you suggest. (Radak)  Abraham therefore worded his following petitions more carefully, gradually lowering the figures to forty, thirty, twenty, and then, finally ten.

Note also, that here God did not specify that the righteous had to be within the city, influential and prominent in public life.  God indicated that He would not measure righteousness by this criteria as Abraham requested.  He would not destroy even if there were five lacking.

18:29  Since Abraham was encouraged by God to continue his supplication, Abraham seized the opportunity and pleaded further.

God indicated to him in each instance that he might plead further, but at a gradual rate.  Abraham pleaded further while reverently begging his indulgence before each new request.

18:32  Why ten?  The Midrash notes: So that there might be sufficient a number for an assembly, a quorum, of righteous men to pray on behalf of them all.

Some suggest that Abraham did not consider it necessary to ask for less than ten.  He thought that Lot and his wife along with his four daughters and sons-in-law, totaling ten, would be sufficiently worthy to save the town.  But he was mistaken in thinking they were righteous.

“I will not destroy on account of the ten.”  –  Because Hashem did not wish Abraham to intercede further, the Holy Presence and Spirit of Prophecy departed from him as soon as Abraham finished his last plea.  Abraham understood that it was God’s will that he pray no further.

“..Abraham returned to his place.”  – During God’s revelation to him, Abraham ceased to be a physical being, rising to a level of prophetic spirituality.  With the departure of the Shechinah, Abraham returned to his physical realm.

Abraham could have been expected to be distraught.  He had prayed and won God’s pledge to spare a wicked population for the sake of only ten people, only to discover that all of his prayers had been in vain because their was no semblance of righteousness in any of the five cities.  Nevertheless, ‘Abraham returned to his place’.  He did not grieve over his failure for he had full faith that whatever God did was merciful and just.

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