In this week’s parshah, the Torah tells us of the story of the destruction of the city of Sedom. This city was steeped in immorality and cruelty. It was illegal in Sedom to help out another person. The Talmud and Midrash describe the different methods of torture that were used by the Sedomites on those that requested help and the punishments that were meted out to those that did help. If a visitor came and asked for lodgings, the host would purposely give him a bed to sleep in that was either too short or too long. If it was too short, they would cut off the visitor’s legs. If it was too long, they would use some sort of chain and crank system to physically stretch out his legs. One that was caught helping out another person was punished by having honey smeared all over him, and then being placed by a bee hive until he was literally stung to death.
God decided that it was time for Sedom to be destroyed as a punishment for their institutionalized, wicked practices, as it had become entirely evil. He first, however, mentioned it to Abraham and gave Abraham the opportunity to plead on behalf of the citizens of Sedom. Abraham immediately began to beseech God. He argued that if there were any tzadikim, righteous people, living within Sedom it would show that the people of Sedom were not totally evil, as they still tolerated these righteous people to live amongst them.
They therefore should not yet be punished, but rather be given another chance.* God responded to Abraham that there were not enough righteous people in Sedom to give credence to his argument, and He did not give in to Abraham’s pleas. The destruction, therefore, took place as planned.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Frankfurt, Germany; 1808-1888) pointed out that from the words that Abraham chose in his defense of the people of Sedom, we can learn what traits afford one the title, tzadik, righteous person. Abraham didn’t ask that if there were righteous individuals living in Sedom, the city should be saved, but rather if they were living within Sedom. This seemingly small addition in Abraham’s wording makes all the difference in determining who is a true tzadik. A person who is righteous but isolates himself and keeps away from others cannot be called a tzadik. A tzadik is someone who lives not merely in the community, but rather, within the community. A tzadik engages the community and tries to help the community to grow and reach new spiritual heights along with him. A tzadik reaches out and helps take care of those in need. A tzadik is there to encourage the downtrodden and lift up those of broken spirit.
*This is how Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained Abraham’s argument.