(Courtesy: New Jersey Jewish Standard – by Rabbi Meir Konikov)
Rabbi Levi Yitzchok had just been appointed rabbi of Berditchev. He instructed the community council and leaders that he intended to use his time very efficiently by studying Torah and counseling people. He would prefer not to be bothered with regular meetings to discuss old traditions and customs unless the subject matter was of new policy.
One day the community council asked him to join one of their meetings to approve new policy for the town. The idea was to set up a communal fund for beggars and not to allow the beggars to go from door to door to beg for food.
Reb Levi Yitzchok exclaimed, “Didn’t I request not to be bothered by old traditions and practices?” They responded, “This is a new policy we want to introduce to this community.” Reb Levi replied, “This policy forbidding the poor to beg is an ancient minhag [custom] that was practiced in the City of Sodom!” The council immediately understood his sharp words and abandoned the idea.
In this week’s parsha, the Torah tells us “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and their sin has been very grave.” Avrohom, however, comes to the people’s defense and tries to persuade God to spare them. “What if there should be 50 righteous people? Would you still stamp it out rather than spare the place? It would be a sacrilege to You to do such a thing,” says Avrohom to God.
Why would Avrohom come to the defense of the wicked and attempt to save sinners? Have they not brought their destruction and demise upon themselves? Didn’t they exercise free choice and decide to live their lives unethically? No one fooled them or forced them into such behavior; they chose the shortcut of corruption, and now true judgment was being exacted upon them. So why does Avrohom negotiate with God to spare them? He should have congratulated God for obliterating those who commit crimes and embarrass the upright and honest citizens.
This, say our rabbis, is what makes Avrohom unique and different from Noah. Noah was righteous in his generation but compared to Avrohom he was nothing. God instructed Noah to build an ark to save himself from the raging waters of the great flood. Noah remained silent and did not ask God to spare the people of his generation.
In the Zohar (Vayera 106), Rabbi Elazer says Noah was nothing compared to Avrohom and Avrohom was incomplete compared to Moshe in this matter.
Noah did not pray for the wicked at all. Avrohom prayed for the wicked but only if he was able to couple them with the righteous. Moshe, however, insisted that if God would not forgive the sinners of the Golden Calf, then “erase me from your Torah.” Moshe defended them unconditionally.
This demonstrates a gradual development of leadership and responsibility, increasing over time. Noah was self-righteous; Avrohom took it further, praying for the wicked along with the righteous. Moshe demonstrates perfect leadership, being compassionate and merciful specifically for sinners.
This is why Moshe was called the true shepherd, for although he knew the people for whom he was praying were sinners, he did not refrain from beseeching God’s mercy on their behalf. Perhaps this, too, is the reason why Moshe was the leader through whom the Torah was given. Moshe brought the Jews into a covenant promising “Kol Yisroel araivim zeh bozeh” all Jews are responsible for one another, to support and take responsibility for one another, not to relish others’ demise and obliteration.
This would be a great lesson for us to take to heart. It is sadly too common that when a friend, acquaintance, or any of our Jewish brethren is exposed as a sinner, we suddenly become self-righteous. We tend to jump on the bandwagon of bashing the downtrodden, and add to their misery by hanging them out to dry. We tend to (mis)represent ourselves as righteous, law-abiding, and ethical people, all on the back and demise of someone else.
“Don’t be sure of yourself until the day you die,” says Hillel, because you could do just the same. “Don’t judge your friend until you have stood in his place,” Hillel continues. We can never know what led sinners to become unethical. Perhaps if we were challenged the way they were, we would have behaved the same way or worse.
Would we treat our blood brother or sister in such a manner? Why should we treat our spiritual brother any differently?
When we hear of our brothers’ mistakes, the true righteous response should be to have mercy on them and feel pained, to pray for them to repent and change their ways. Maybe this will arouse mercy from God on their behalf. If we can’t manage to express ourselves in this noble manner, as Moshe or Avrohom would, then perhaps we are better off remaining silent like Noah.
As a small child, Reb Zalman Aharon (the “Raza”), the older brother of Rebbe Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch (the “Rashab”), often complained that he was noticeably shorter than his younger brother.
One day, the Raza sneaked up behind his brother and pushed him lightly into a small ditch. As the Rashab stood up in surprise, the Raza seized the moment and pointed out that now he was taller.
Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, the father of the two boys, observed the entire episode. The rebbe asked for a chair, ordered the Raza to stand on it, and asked him, “Tell me, who’s taller now?”
The Raza answered excitedly that yet again he was taller.
“Aha!” said Rabbi Shmuel. “There you are! To be bigger than your friend, there is no need to pull him down. Simply elevate yourself!”