Our God’s a righteous God—forgiving, too!
A truth upon which all men may agree.
Because our God is just, He’ll punish you.
Because He’s merciful, He’ll pardon me.
- Laurence Perrine, “Justice and Mercy Reconciled”
What are the limits to compassion? When does mercy become unjust? Issuing judgment informed by mercy will favor the defendant, but in the gavel’s same thump, it comes at the victim’s expense; in tipping the scales for one party, by its very nature, justice becomes imbalanced. How to correctly maneuver the roadways of din and rahamim—strict justice and merciful compassion—becomes improbable, if not nearly impossible.
Enter God to adjudicate on the case of Sodom, a city bursting at its borders with cruelty, immorality, and evil. As victims’ cries pierce the divine ears (cf. Bereishit 18:21), a verdict comes swiftly: destruction. Enter the defense. Avraham, God’s chosen one (cf. Bereishit 18:19), mounts the podium to advocate on Sodom’s behalf in a famed dialogue. He weighs upon God’s scales of justice by petitioning for peace. It is balance that Avraham’s counterarguments seek, and it is God who must concede or resist.
This scene perturbs the reader. Can humans question and combat God? What could the mind know that God does not? Can the divine will be unjust? These questions frame the discomfort felt in encountering the text, in placing God under examination and daring to wonder if the Almighty is truly all-good.
But this saga speaks to more than the particulars of Sodom’s fate. For if the Torah solely intended to relate Avraham’s initial protests against God, why expend nine pesukim on superfluous details? In exploring this section, this essay suggests that Avraham, God, and Sodom more significantly speak to the turmoil humans face in a world fraught with cruelty and reliant on compassion. How far can one—how far should one—expand the perimeters of compassion, and who is deserving of such benevolence? Between God’s morality, God’s word, and God’s will, we are left to navigate competing values while toying with the fate of human victims and human perpetrators.
I. Divine Hesitation and Divine Justice
After Avraham displays his potency for kindheartedness when approached by the three angels in Mamrei, the Torah draws attention to the transition toward a new act: “The men arose from there and va-yashkifu on the faces of Sodom,” the text says, with “Avraham walking with them to send them” (Bereishit 18:16). The inclusion of an innocuous pasuk, merely denoting the conclusion of a meeting, carries an eerie foreshadow. “Va-yashkifu,” literally meaning “and they looked upon,” signals an ominous sense of peril. Midrash Tanhuma senses the word’s connotation of brewing disaster, pain, trouble. Hidden within the text is a quiet prediction of Sodom’s impending doom, solidified by the angels’ silent gaze.
Radak, interestingly, feels compelled to clarify that “the men arose from there” means that they arose “from Avraham’s home,” as if the reader could not intuit that detail from the text’s natural transition from the previous scene, placed at Avraham’s home. Perhaps, we can suggest, there is a need to emphasize Avraham’s home as the point of departure. This saga begins from the shelter of safety, the tents of compassion, removed from the open plains of real life. And now, suddenly, as Avraham practices the final act of hospitality by escorting his guests from the quietude of the home, he catches the scent of calamity. Calm and catastrophe meet.
Then God arrives in the text and confides in the reader what is to occur. “Ha-mikhaseh from Avraham that which I will do?” God rhetorically asks (Bereishit 18:17). “Shall I cover, conceal, protect”—ha-mikhaseh denotes an inner conflict within God, an insight into His clashing wills, so to speak, to obfuscate or to reveal. The word also signifies a protective element, as if God’s plan is vulnerable, susceptible, to change and in need of shelter. Though His blueprint is subject to revision, He dares not conceal it from Avraham. The words are expressed “in astonishment,” Rashi says, an impossibility that God would never entertain.
“I gave him this land, and these five towns are his,” Rashi writes for God’s rationale. “I called him… ‘father of a multitude of nations.’ Shall I destroy the children and not notify the father, he who is lover of Me?” This reading sees God’s hesitation emerging from personal affinity and obligation. Avraham has been earthly partner to the heavens; should he now be excluded from its plans? He is “lover of Me.” Bekhor Shor connects this pasuk to the prophet Amos, who said, “Because my Master Hashem does nothing without revealing His secret to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Avraham is a beloved of God, befitting to receive His inner thoughts, so, in his merit, God shared. For Seforno, however, publicizing the justice of divine will is at the center of God’s doubt. Rather than stemming from His personal attachment to Avraham, God’s reasoning to reveal emerges from His own resistance to concealing His goodness—a goodness that compels God to bend the arc of justice so far as to allow Sodom’s repentance by only 10 righteous individuals (as seen in the concluding pesukim).
The two pesukim that follow provide greater footing to understand God’s words:
And Avraham is to become a great, strong nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. For I knew him in order to command his sons and his home after him, that they should guard the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice, in order for Hashem to bring upon Avraham that which He spoke upon him. (Bereishit 18:18-19)
Ramban understands that it befits the father of nations, God’s quintessential partner in this universal project, to enter into the “council of God” and plead for mercy for those nations. God then says:
Za’akat Sodom and Amorah is so exceeding, and their sin is so khavedah; I will descend and I will see whether they have completely acted according to the outcry for help that has reached me, and if not, I will know. (Bereishit 18:20-21)
“Za’akah” is a raw scream, an outcry of distress, originating in human experience—pain, suffering, helplessness. It is born from subjective experience. The sins being khavedah denotes their heaviness, the weight and significance measured objectively and quantitatively. In both respects—the objective and the subjective—God has reason to fear for their society.
Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Bekhor Shor, and others attribute those bellowing screams to the victims. Interestingly, both Ibn Ezra and Bekhor Shor characterize Sodom’s actions as “hamas”—the same word God uses toward Noah in explaining the impending flood: “The end of all flesh comes before Me because the earth is filled with hamas because of them, and behold, I will destroy them with the earth” (Bereishit 6:13). That reading echoes familiar warning signs in God’s words: destruction is upon them.
Yet, God will investigate the matter. Rashi cites this as an example for judges to rule only following serious inquiry and inspection into the matter. The “due process” of divine justice remains intact.
To find illustration of Sodom’s misdeeds, an important factor as we will soon see, we turn to rabbinic sources. Sanhedrin 109a-b depicts utter societal evil among the people: They would position individuals before flimsy walls, tip the walls to kill them, and claim their property; mete out people’s stored treasures and snatch them; offer charity to the poor and refuse to sell, effectively starving and killing them; torture a charitable woman by lathering her with honey and baiting hornets, to cite a few. Sodom’s culture was attuned to callous manipulation, theft, and murder.
God’s word of the za’akah and sins of Sodom was told to Avraham, Rashi says, thereby laying out the situation at hand. That point marks the foggy scope of this scene—what happens next is known to God alone. The Midrash Rabbah fills in this gap with more movement:
“I will descend” … R. Abba bar Kahana said, “It teaches that the Place opened for them a door of teshuvah, as it says, I will descend and I will see whether they have completely [kalah] acted according to the outcry for help that has reached me’—they are liable for destruction [kelayah, related to kalah]—‘and if not, I will know,’—I will make known the attribute of din [strict justice] in the world.” … There was a case with two girls that went down to drink and to draw water. One says to her friend, “Why is your face sickly?” She said to her, “[My] food supply is finished and [I am] already close to dying.” What did [her friend] do? She filled her pitcher with flour and swapped; one took what was in the hand of the other. And since they [the people of Sodom] were enraged, they carried her [the friend] off and burned her. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: “Even if I wish to be silent, the fate of this girl does not allow me to be silent.” This is what is written: “its outcry for help”; it does not say “their outcry for help,” rather it says “her outcry for help,” and this is the fate of the girl. [the suffix of the Hebrew could refer to “its” as the city—a feminine noun—or it could read “hers.”]
“The Place” [ha-Makom], God’s name implying open expansion and possibility, propped open the doors of teshuvah for Sodom. The Judge provided ample opportunity for change, for Sodom to generate a new self and thus a new decree. So, God left His chambers, so to speak, and ventured to peer into the city’s happenings to see if a new reality dawned upon the people. Instead, God witnesses the instinctive and selfless kindness of a young girl seeking to catch her friend from falling into the abyss of death. Innocent, simple, is her act: provide nourishment to save her life. The people are enraged—hirgishu, meaning a “tumultuous, storming” rage; the intensity of nature’s inflamed behaviors incenses them to act. The girl is burned for her “crime.” The frustrating absurdity of Sodom is inconceivable. Kindness is not only not performed, but it is censured. This anecdote models the culture: do good at your own risk.
In response, God capitulates to the reality of the situation. “Even if I wish to be silent,” He woefully says, “the fate of this girl does not allow me to be silent.” In almost blasphemous terms, the Midrash ascribes a complacent attitude to divine justice, an instinct to disregard evil and neglect a just order. By chance, by the sorrowful end of this young girl, God is moved to action. His “wish to be silent” is disrupted by her doom. Perhaps this unorthodox risk is taken to demonstrate the extent of God’s mercy, how God yearns so greatly to rule by unbounded compassion—second chances, exceptions, rule bending. At some point, the cost of mercy enacts stricter judgment on the victim, as in this case: should God have granted Sodom His divine grace? Could His actions truly be considered compassionate toward the girl burned at the stake? The privilege of silence was not afforded in this case. The investigation was over.
Without explicit resolution in the Torah, the narrative leaves God and returns to Avraham and the angels: “And the men turned from there and they went to Sodom, and Avraham remained standing before Hashem” (Bereishit 18:22). This “standing” is read by some as a prayer requesting mercy. What ensues, then, illustrates his prayer, that turning toward communion with God for a new resolution for Sodom.
II. The Cradle of Prayer
“Va-yigash Avraham, and he said, ‘Will You really snatch up the righteous with the wicked?’” (Bereishit 18:23). There is an abrupt entrance of Avraham onto the scene, opening what initially sounds like a monologue against God. Ramban explains that Avraham was unaware that God knew that no righteous people existed in Sodom, that He was, in fact, only snatching the wicked along with the wicked. Avraham hoped to suspend destruction on account of the righteous, pardoning all on behalf of the good few.
That first word, “va-yigash,” means that Avraham drew near, came forward, approached God. It captures this moment of intimacy, mixed with vulnerability and confrontation. Bereishit Rabbah features a tripartite debate regarding va-yigash’s meaning.
“And Avraham approached, and he said…” R. Yehudah, R. Nehemyah, and the Rabbis [disputed]. R. Yehudah says, “Approaching for war” … R. Nehemyah says, “Approaching for appeasement” … The Rabbis say, “Approaching for prayer.”
The three suggestions capture the three essential views of Avraham’s advancement. R. Yehudah sees Avraham warring against God in the name of what is right, what is just; he and God are fellow combatants. R. Nehemyah senses Avraham’s servitude at play, the lowly, meek servant seeking to calm his Master lest His anger subsume His better judgment; Avraham is acting in God’s best interest. For the Rabbis, it seems the preceding two views are unified: Avraham approaches to pray, for there is a dynamism within prayer that invokes appeal and apprehension, warring words and pleading petitions. Indeed, that is the method Avraham invokes in the eight following pesukim (Bereishit 18:24-25, 27-32) in which he speaks.
We will quote the remaining dialogue between God and Avraham and subsequently follow its development in greater detail.
Avraham: Perhaps there are 50 righteous people within the city—will You really snatch up and not endure the place for the sake of the 50 righteous people within it? Far be it from You, doing such a thing, to execute the righteous with the wicked, and it would be that righteous is like wicked. Far be it from You—shall the Judge of all earth not perform justice?
God: If I find in Sodom 50 righteous people within the city, I would endure the whole place for them.
Avraham: Behold, I have begun to speak to my Master—and I am dust and ashes. Perhaps the 50 righteous people will be lacking five. Will You destroy for five the entire city?
God: I will not destroy if I find there 45.
Avraham: Perhaps You will find 40.
God: I will not act for the sake of the 40.
Avraham: Please do not let my Master be incensed, and I will speak: perhaps 30 will be found there.
God: I will not act if I find 30.
Avraham: Please, I have begun to speak to my Master: perhaps 20 will be found there.
God: I will not destroy for the sake of the 20.
Avraham: Please do not let my Master be incensed, and I will speak but another time: perhaps 10 will be found there.
God: I will not destroy for the sake of the 10.
The verbose passion oscillates throughout for Avraham. Whereas he begins with lengthy exposition, he soon reverts to terse statements—“Perhaps You will find 40”—only to intermittently lengthen his pattern—“Please do not let my Master be incensed…” Matched to God’s response, Avraham’s prayer almost seems like a soft dance, following a choreography to match the movements in the dialogue. The steps waver between forceful language ringing of combat (“Far be it from You!”) and soft demeanor of meekness (“Please, I begin to speak to my Master”). To understand the cradle of prayer, we will first glimpse into the patterned language of Avraham, before we return for a conceptual overhaul.
III. The Prayer for God
Avraham’s “topic sentence,” if you will, conveys his struggle: “Will You really snatch up the righteous with the wicked?” Setting aside the tactful presentation, he is troubled by God’s willingness to issue collective punishment. But in a sly equivocation, he then argues that God should not merely spare the righteous, but rather God should spare the wicked as well, for the sake of the righteous. Avraham pushes his case to maintain that all should be saved. He puts forth:
Perhaps there are 50 righteous people within the city—will You really snatch up and not tisa the place for the sake of the 50 righteous people within it? Far be it from You, doing such a thing, to execute the righteous with the wicked, and it would be that righteous is like wicked. Far be it from You—shall the Judge of all earth not perform justice? (Bereishit 18:24-25)
Avraham imagines a revolutionized Sodom whereby the city is good enough, wholly capable of withstanding God’s wrath. “Tisa”—endure or sustain—suggests a period of time, a window of endurance and not an eternal commitment. There is an urgency to Avraham, a chutzpah that almost haphazardly dictates his impulse. “Far be it from You, doing such a thing,” he audaciously says, “to execute the righteous with the wicked.” “Shall the Judge of all earth not perform justice?” This skirmish with apparent absurdity mitigates his hesitance in addressing God. Based on the Midrash Tanhuma, Rashi explains Avraham to insist God practice true justice, as opposed to (in Gur Aryeh’s words) “stam justice,” one that is general, indefinite, and arbitrary.
Avraham is moved to audacity by his outrage over an apparent divine abuse. Bereishit Rabbah draws this discourse with imagery of Noah and the flood. “You violate Your vow [not to bring another flood]!” Avraham cries. “A flood of water You do not bring, but a flood of fire You bring?!… If You want a world, then there can be no din, and if You want din, then there can be no world… If You cannot give in a little, then the world cannot exist.” Avraham confronts God with a truth to which He was seemingly oblivious: You cannot have justice and a world—God cannot insist on din and sustain the world. Avraham senses God is inching toward cataclysmic ends reached hundreds of years prior. In Seforno’s reading, he says, “For in Your being Judge of all the world, if You judge all of it based on the majority [in issuing judgment], You will undoubtedly destroy it forever, for the majority of people are wicked.” He cannot afford for God to wipe clean the slates once more, to extinguish the flames of life. The fearlessness in his words, undergirding his message, approaches God in an unprecedented manner. And yet, God matches his challenge: “If I find within Sodom 50 righteous people within the city, and I will endure the whole place for their sake.” (Bereishit 18:26).
If God could find 50 righteous people within Sodom, Rav Hirsch says, that would demonstrate the city’s potential for repentance; after all, if the city can tolerate the good individuals—of whom some likely protest—then there is hope in its future.
As for the seemingly arbitrary “50” that Avraham offers, Rashi explains that there were five locales within Sodom; each, he reasoned, needed 10 people to be saved. Avraham’s strategy, following Rashi’s commentary, is to gradually “drop” a city that does not have 10 to save—40 righteous will save four locales, 30 three, 20 two, and so on. (Interestingly, but not for our discussion, Avraham does not consider that the distribution could not be proportional, such as one town hosting 46 righteous, while the other towns have one each, only justifying saving the one locale.)
With an almost shattering realization, Avraham reverts to meekness: “Behold, I begin to speak to my Master—and I am dust and ashes,” he prefaces. “Perhaps the 50 righteous people will be lacking five. Will You destroy for five the entire city?” Rashi understands that Avraham’s suggestion of 45 is that each town could hold nine and God could substitute for their tenth, hence why he does not say “perhaps there will be 45” and instead says “will be lacking five”—by including God, the count would effectively function as 50 righteous people and save all five locales.
“Ho’alti,” here translated as “I have begun,” hints at Avraham’s daring. That is because Avraham is like “dust and ashes”—an expression that the Midrash sees as a reference to his origins and near death at the hands of Nimrod. More than a sentiment of indebtedness to God, this reading hints at an openness toward ‘second chances.’ Avraham was saved from death when Nimrod ordered him to enter the flames, and today, he stands as God’s trusted confidant; perhaps Sodom could achieve a similar turnaround.
God’s responses throughout the dialogue remain stoic and brief (“I will not destroy for the sake of…”). There is insignificant variation and no commentary as well as no acknowledgment of Avraham’s humble overtures and apologies. The only changes appear in Avraham’s language, which still largely remains the same. His prefaces center around his discomfort with challenging God (“Please do not let my Master be incensed, and I will speak,” “Behold, I have begun to speak to my Master,” “Please do not let my Master be incensed, and I will speak but another time”). While an analysis of the minutiae in his words could reveal greater meaning, for our aims, we can conclude that Avraham expended his same strategy: confront and withdraw, demand and placate. Both elements of the Midrash are found—approaching to war and to appease.
The dialogue’s conclusion arrives when God accepts Avraham’s final terms: “I will not destroy for the sake of the 10” (Bereishit 18:32). Within the narrative, the storyline is simple and coherent: God plans to destroy Sodom for its crimes, and the human, hopeful Avraham begs for mercy and justice, pleading to sway God’s way. Outside the text, however, we are left to contend with troubling questions: How can God rule unjustly? Does He require humans to recourse His sometimes failing will? Are those subjected to God’s judgment left to suffer when they lack advocates of Avraham’s stature?
Indeed, these questions are troubling. But they are not solely tied to this case of Sodom. Every time one lifts the siddur to pray, are we not met with these same queries? In fact, this episode itself is conceived as Avraham’s prayer to God: he beseeched the divine to fight for justice and to beg for mercy. In some sense, it is best characterized not as his prayer to God, rather it is his prayer for God.
IV. Prayer as Self-Transformation
It is necessary that prayer be clean of any idea of changing will and affecting response in God’s law, which is deceitful knowledge in relation to divinity and brings about the destruction of the orders of human perfection.
What Rav Kook writes here unequivocally contradicts the story of Sodom. Avraham prayed for Sodom. He explicitly sought to change God’s will. He hoped to change God’s decree. Rav Kook’s words apparently attribute his actions to the “destruction of the order of man’s perfection.”
For Rav Kook, to suggest that one can “better” God by proposing new suggestions or demanding new realities is tantamount to heresy, for it essentially depends on denying God’s omniscience: if one’s argument and plea is “new information” to God, then He cannot be all-knowing, and if God already knows one’s forthcoming words, then God already accounted for them. The first case denies God, and the second case denies prayer.
Returning to Ramban’s comment cited earlier, we see that, in fact, God already knew no righteous people existed in Sodom, and further, He knew that Avraham would continue to wager for lower figures. Thus, God remains all-knowing. We are left to wonder: wherein lay the purpose to Avraham’s prayer?
This whole—to call it that—dialogue between Abraham and the Judge of the world, in which the dust-covered man dares to step before the face of God with his feeling of justice and finds approving approval, is finally a guarantee of the divinity of that voice in us which right and duty pleaded in us. As much as we are epher and aphar, made of dust and crumbling to ashes, not everything about us is dust and ashes. In this body of dust and ashes lives a breath of his eternal Creator and an echo of his spirit. Humanity and justice and all spiritual and moral goods of mankind are certified by this divine echo in every human being’s breast, and secured beyond all dust and ashes, teachings of materialistic wisdom.
These scenes and events were never going to change God’s plans; after all, could Avraham present a case for which God Himself has not already thought? The Torah’s descriptions of God’s mind or plan changing are merely optical descriptions, what appears to be happening, not the theologically sound realities. In Avraham’s prayerful protests arose the divinely innate demanding of justice for humanity, the premier moral goodness embodied in the soul. Prayer, then, as Rav Hirsch, Rav Kook, and others write elsewhere, is an exercise of self-transformation, the realization of God’s highest ideals within the praying human.
While the face of Sodom’s trial appears a parry of equals, of God and human, its reality conveys a truth of human prayer. To face injustice and open the siddur is to yearn for God’s ideals of righteousness, compassion, and justice. Avraham’s grappling with God—his outrage over collective punishment, his indignation at divine wrongdoing, his recusal to humility, and his concession to reality—can be likened to the inner currents of one’s mind during prayer. The tossing and turning of the heart, the longing and reaching of the soul, are the choreography of prayer.
The practice of Avraham’s prayer appears as fury-charged screams, but its function exists as channeling God’s highest will. God wants to translate His compassion to humans, and that is precisely what Avraham achieved.
Midrash Tanhuma says that when humans sin, God entreats an advocate to plead on their behalf. In toiling with God, morality, justice, and humans, Avraham became such an advocate. He swam in the rivers of compassion and arrived at the shore of God’s courts. Avraham’s transformation of self arose to its completion.
 Ibn Ezra to Bereishit 18:20; Bekhor Shor to Bereishit 18:20. See also my recent essay on the responsibility placed on Noah by God in the context of the flood, available at https://thelehrhaus.com/timely-thoughts/noah-and-the-trauma-of-heroic-destiny/.