In Parashat VaYeira, Avraham Avinu famously prays for the people of Sedom to be spared from destruction. He initially requests that the city be spared if there fifty Tzaddikim in the city. When they are not saved, Avraham continues to ask for their salvation in exchange for increasingly small numbers of Tzaddikim, ending with his request for ten. Sedom, however, does not even have this small number. The complete lack of righteousness in the city is astounding, so perhaps it is worth taking a closer look at the people who were in the city.
In Parashat Lech Lecha, the people of Sedom are described as “Ra’im Va’Chata’im LaHashem Me’od” “Wicked and evil towards Hashem exceedingly” (Bereshit 13:13). The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 107b) utilizes this Pasuk to conclude that the people of Sedom do not hold a portion in the world to come. Their terribly sinful ways precluded them from having any reward whatsoever. The Gemara (109b) helps us understand the necessity of this harsh punishment, by offering a glimpse into Sedom’s society. Firstly, their city, as a whole, was not at all welcoming to foreigners. If a wealthy man came into the city, they would sit him down next to an unstable wall. The people of Sedom would proceed to push the wall down on top of him, and then take his money, under the pretense of the unsteady wall just happening to collapse while he was underneath. Additionally, if a guest came to town, they were offered a bed. If he was too short, however, the people of Sedom stretch him to fill the entire bed, and if he were too tall, the townspeople would chop off his excess body length. Sedom’s justice system was irrational as well. If a man caused a woman to miscarry, his punishment would be impregnating his victim. If a man was attacked, he would have to compensate his assaulter for providing the valuable “medical procedure” of bloodletting. Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, the Gemara records the story of a young woman who was covered in honey and left to be killed by bees for the simple crime of providing a poor individual with bread.
Rav Daniel Fridman recently addressed this topic in his weekly Hashkafa Shiur in TABC. He suggested that the people of Sedom, no matter how perverse their actions were, nonetheless believed that their society was fair and just. They “justified” their despicable actions in roundabout ways. For instance, they allowed men to commit rape under the pretense of compensating women for their lost children. They blamed their obvious crimes on natural circumstances, rather than their own actions. The people of Sedom, under a thin veneer of righteousness, focused of victimizing those who were already vulnerable. Rav Fridman suggested that the townspeople of Sedom represented the polar opposite of Avraham Avinu, who stood for Tzedek and Mishpat.
In spite of Sedom’s sinful ways, Avraham Avinu still beseeches Hashem to spare them. He ignores their apparent character flaws, and focuses on davening for their salvation. I think we can all learn a valuable lesson from Avraham. Regardless of past mistakes, every human being should be treated with respect and offered help when possible.