“For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of Hashem by doing what is right and just”
-Rabbi Benayahu Bronner-
The words of this verse, spoken by Hashem about Avraham, open the chapter that relates the episode of the destruction of Sdom and Amorrah. These words are written immediately following the story of the three people who appeared to Avraham and were revealed as angels once inside his tent. The Rabbis in the Talmud state the following: “This nation is distinguished by three characteristics: They are merciful, bashful and benevolent.” Avraham’s benevolence is expressed in his hospitality, actions in the field and ideological principles that push to prevent any loss of life in the world.
Avraham’s hospitality teaches us a number of important values:
Searching out the needy even when times are difficult – The Rabbis teach us that the encounter with the angels took place on the third day, the most difficult and painful day, after Avraham’s circumcision, and yet he sat at the entrance to his tent at high noon, at the “heat of the day,” waiting for passers-by who he could invite into his home. A benevolent person does not wait for the needy to find him; rather he goes out of his way to find them.
Hospitality is greater than welcoming the divine presence – “Now Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre … And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him.” Hashem has appeared to Avraham. He was in the midst of a prophetic experience. Yet he quit his audience with Hashem in order to welcome guests. The fact that Avraham was able to notice the approaching guests even in the midst of his prophecy shows us that prophecy does not mean complete separation from worldly events. On the contrary, the purpose of prophecy is to enhance life in this world, particularly with respect to spirituality and morality, and therefore it is inconceivable that a prophet not be aware of worldly events, especially when these present opportunities to help others. When faced with the dilemma of whether to continue prophesying or stop to assist someone in need, Avraham chose the latter option as this was the essence of his mission in this world.
Assisting everyone in need – Avraham brought idol worshipers into his home. Avraham publicized Hashem’s name in the world while being surrounded by idol worshipers. Nevertheless, Avraham did not refrain from hosting them in his home. Avraham did not know the people who arrived at his home and this is why he brought them water to wash their feet at the beginning of their visit, out of fear that they worship the dust of the earth caked on to their feet from their travels. When it comes to extending kindness, a benevolent person’s hands are outstretched to all those in need. The Rabbis teach us that “We support the poor of the heathen along with the poor of Israel.” This fundamental disposition drove Avraham to try and save the people of Sdom, even though he knew of their cruelty and terrible actions.
Jewish education is founded on “the way of Hashem,” meaning “to do what is right and just.” Hashem was fond of Avraham, as “for I have known him” is an expression of affection. This affection was rooted in the knowledge that Avraham would “command his sons and his household after him” in order to educate them in the way of Hashem.
Justice can only be served in a society that incorporates righteousness. A society founded solely on justice will not survive. “Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments therein in accordance with Biblical law … and did not go beyond the requirements of the law” (Bava Metzia 30b). When justice takes the place of righteousness and fills the world it can bring about destruction since the world cannot cope with such a situation. “The world shall be built on kindness.” If kindness serves as the root of all things, a legal system can then be constructed as a second level in order to complete the world. Justice will take the place of righteousness when the latter cannot be implemented. Avraham, when debating with Hashem regarding the fate of Sdom, was attempting to discover whether righteousness can take precedence over justice.
The essence of righteousness does not mean coming to terms with the corrupt behavior of the people of Sdom, as Avraham certainly did not agree with such behavior. He initially tried to discover whether the city’s inhabitants could be saved, in the knowledge that he would then attempt to change their behavior with the help of the few righteous people who were found in Sdom. Hashem made it clear to Avraham that such an endeavor was impossible, as Sdom did not even contain ten righteous men. Justice must be served despite its unfortunate consequences.
Nevertheless, the Torah tells us in great detail of the exchange between Avraham and Hashem, including Avraham’s strong words to Hashem: “Far be it from you to do a thing such as this, to put to death the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should be like the wicked. Far be it from you! Will the judge of the entire earth not perform justice?” This is one of the harshest things ever said to Hashem by a human being and Avraham used this language in order to try and rescue the corrupt and evil people of Sdom. This teaches us that the qualities of kindness and righteousness should always be at the forefront, regardless of the situation, as this is Hashem’s will. If all else fails, and only then, should justice be implemented.
The lessons that we must learn are to create a society built upon justice and kindness, with the justice system to be employed only under extreme circumstances.
Rabbi Benayahu Bronner – Rabbi Bronner is the head of the beit midrash at the Zafed academic college and he serves as a communal rabbi in Zafed.