Selecting the Good out of the Bad
When Hashem informed Avraham that he was going to bring great retribution upon the people of Sodom, Avraham understood that this was his cue to argue on their behalf. When thinking about the people of Sodom, however, how could God expect Avraham to defend a people who were so diametrically opposed to his values?
Avraham represented the attribute of Chesed (giving kindness), and had spent his life trying to share the material gifts of his tent as well as his ideas with the rest of mankind. The people of Sodom, by contrast, valued the ideal of keeping things to oneself and not sharing with others. The Mishnah (Avos 5:10) states that when a person has the attitude of, “שלי שלי ושלך שלך”, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours,” this is the Sodomite value. As the Midrashim relate, the people of Sodom were opposed to the concept of charity and of inviting guests into their homes.
They actively punished anyone whose heart was stirred with a compassionate gesture toward the poor, which is why the Sodomites were so incensed when Lot invited his guests, the three angels, into his home (19:4-9). Avraham’s value was that of the Chasid (pious one) in the Mishnah: “שלי שלך ושלך שלך” – “What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is yours.” Why did Hashem expect Avraham to defend Sodom?
Doing for yourself, doing for others
R. Yaakov Lainer suggests that although Avraham spent his life giving of himself to others, he also needed to understand that at certain times and places, it is appropriate for every human being to stand on their own two feet and not be on the dole. The people of Sodom represented a value that, in certain situations, could actually be considered virtuous. Consider the parent whose adult child still lives in the basement, but is capable of living on his own and being financially independent. At some point, the parents need to encourage the child to move on and be more independent, not because they are cruel, but because they know that at some point, we do a disservice to others by making life too easy for them.
Avraham believed that his era needed the kindness that a parent shows to a young child who cannot yet take care of himself, because it was a period in history when man was still immature and discovering his world. God testified about His own creation (Psalms 89:3): “כִּֽי־אָמַ֗רְתִּי ע֭וֹלָם חֶ֣סֶד יִבָּנֶ֑ה” – “I created this world with Chesed.”
That is, there was nothing that God’s creations did to deserve to be created; our very existence is based on the kindness of someone who has confidence in another’s future. Like the undeveloped character Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, mankind needed someone to invest in them in the hopes that they would make something of themselves. Recognizing God’s benevolence, Avraham sought to emulate this kindness in a generation that was still relatively close to that incipient period of creation.
Manifestations of Chesed
What Hashem wanted Avraham to also appreciate, however, was that there would come a time in man’s societal evolution where Chesed could actually be counter-productive to man’s growth. The older and wiser that society becomes, the more mankind develops the capacity for self-sufficiency, and the more that it is important for people to withdraw from the public sphere and allow others the ability to become independent, without relying on Chesed.
We can see some of the manifestations of Chesed run awry in our own society. In an effort to eliminate poverty and suffering, liberal democracies have created benevolent social systems that ensure welfare and free access to medical care and other basic amenities. At the same time, this has resulted in the undesired side-effect of a certain percentage of the population losing its drive for self-sufficiency and ambition. Society has provided the option for people to live out the bulk of their lives as drug addicts and vagrants because the welfare safety net provides them the financial cushion to do so. This is not to say that welfare is a bad thing; just that for a minority of people, it results in more harm than good.
In the Messianic Age, the Talmud teaches that we will no longer accept converts. Implicit in this statement is that there will come a period in human history where man will no longer be afforded the Chesed of being given something for nothing. At some point in the future, man will reap the fruits of his own efforts, each according to his own degree.
Avraham and Yitzhak -Creating balance
Indeed, this was the difference in attitude between Avraham and his son, Yitzchak, who represented not Chesed, but Gevurah (lit., “might”), a certain effort to help mankind arrive at self-sufficiency. This is not to say that Yitzchak was an unkind man, but rather that his compassion for human beings impelled him to help others help themselves. Instead of sharing his own greatness with others, he withdrew from others in order to give them the opportunity to grow and develop on their own power.
By prompting Avraham to pray on behalf of the people of Sodom, Avraham came developed the argument that perhaps a certain percentage of the people were motivated by a virtuous attitude of trying to help others arrive at self-sufficiency. “Perhaps there are 50 righteous people (18:24),” reasoned Avraham, who refuse to give charity because they wish to foster within others a proper work ethic and bring others to independence. It was only when Hashem explained that the Sodomites were not motivated by anything virtuous, that Avraham relented.
The dichotomy between Avraham’s value of Chesed and Sodom’s value of self-sufficiency allows us to realize that every social movement, no matter how antithetical to the Torah, has a kernel of virtue, when applied in the right time and the right place.
Acknowledging value in opposing ideology
As Rav Kook wrote, in discussing the nascent anti-religious communism of his time: “One must realize that every bad ideology contains a kernel of goodness which attracts people to it. Accordingly, so long as one only focuses on the evil of the opposing ideology, those who see its goodness will not accept the arguments to the contrary. It is only when one acknowledges the good kernel that inheres within a bad ideology, concedes the attraction to the ideology because of the small amount of goodness within it, and argues for the preservation of that small amount of good, will he succeed in convincing the adherents to come to the other side and rehabilitate themselves.”
When taking into account the constantly shifting sands of our society, we’d do well to hold them up to the light of the Torah, and exercise caution before embracing new ideologies that may run counter to the values of our heritage. At the same time, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s worthwhile to listen carefully to our ideological opponents, and try to extract the kernels of value even when rejecting the overarching system. Our tradition teaches us that each generation is coming closer to the ultimate perfection of the Messianic Age. Even corrupt social movements may contain the kernel of that necessary ingredient that moves the marker forward towards man’s perfection.
We look forward to the day when our society arrives at an ideology that is truly consistent with our Torah, purified of the chaff of an imperfect world. May we see it, bb”a.