Growing up, my mother always told me, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Innocent words could be transformed into the height of chutzpah through a slight change in tone. As an author, I must constantly examine the tones of my dialogs, relying upon context as much as the actual words to build the full meaning.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we see a dramatic change in tone in a dialog between Abraham and God. Unpacking this can illuminate an aspect of God’s relationship to the world that we might otherwise miss. The dialog starts when Abraham learns that God intends to destroy the wicked city of Sdom. Here is the first part of the dialog:
(23) Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? (24) What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? (25) It would be a sacrilege for You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. It would be a sacrilege to You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (26) And the LORD answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”
In this section, Abraham is on the attack. He is telling God that it would be a sacrilege to act this way. Now pay attention to the difference in tone in this next section:
(27) Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: (28) What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.” (29) But he spoke to Him again, and said, “What if forty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the forty.” (30) And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” (31) And he said, “I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if twenty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.” (32) And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.” (33)When the LORD had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.
Now Abraham is calling himself dust and ashes? Now Abraham is asking that God not be angry with his request? Where’s the attack? Where’s the sacrilege? And why stop at only requesting the city to be spared for ten righteous? Why not go on? The dialog ends with God leaving to destroy the city and Abraham saying nothing.
Personally, I read this segment as describing three levels of reality: Justice, Mercy, and Stupidity.
In the first part of the dialog, Abraham understands that God’s justice requires letting Sdom exist if fifty righteous be found. Why this is the level of justice I’m not sure, though I’ll share one opinion. Five cities were to be destroyed and fifty righteous would thus equate to ten righteous per city. Ten is a significant number, it’s the number of a minyan, and represents the minimum size of a core community. As long as it’s a question of justice, Abraham comes right at God in his attempt to dissuade him.
But under fifty people, justice apparently no longer requires that the city be spared. At that point Abraham drops the language of justice, drops the language of sacrilege. Now Abraham throws himself upon the mercy of the Court. Now, with the just result being destruction, now he steps gently. Now he’s making requests. Now he’s cautious of not overstepping his bounds.
But why does he stop? Why not continue to argue that if even one righteous person be found that Sdom should be spared? Because even mercy has its bounds. As long as there’s a core of ten righteous in all five cities combined, Abraham still argues for mercy. But he stops there, because if the region has grown so evil that even ten righteous can not be found, then even Abraham does not believe it should be spared. Fighting for its salvation then would be extending mercy into the realms of stupidity.
So what does this mean for us? It’s a core of our understanding of the story that Abraham’s petitioning God for mercy on behalf of the wicked strengthened God’s mercy in the world. We contrast this story with Noah remaining silent during the destruction of the world, wondering if Noah actually had the power to avert the flood had he similarly attempted to strengthen God’s aspect of mercy. So too, by strengthening mercy within ourselves, we believe that we can increase the amount of mercy in the world. Yet, we also see that mercy has its limits where it must give way to justice.