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12.11.2019 20:07    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  vayera  klein  

"Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?"

In the dialogue between the Holy One, blessed be He, and our patriarch Abraham, before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham presented the Lord with two demands:

"Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  What if there should be fifty innocent with the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?" (Gen. 18:23-24).  In other words, the entire city should be saved if there are enough righteous in it.

"Far be it from You!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Gen. 18:25).  In other words, if the city is to be destroyed, then the few righteous who live there should be saved.

The second demand was not a subject of debate.  In any event the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to remove from Sodom those righteous who did not deserve to be punished, along with the wicked inhabitants of the city.  This becomes evident from the continuation of the story, when Lot and his family leave the city limits.  The ensuing dialogue revolved around Abraham's first demand that the entire city be granted mercy if there were a minimal number of righteous in it.  Abraham pleaded on behalf of steadily decreasing numbers of righteous.  In terms of the general principle, the Holy One, blessed be He, accepted the demand; but not enough righteous were found in Sodom.

The Lord's decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah fits in with the principle expressed by Maimonides in Hilkhot Teshuvah, by which a state whose iniquities outweigh its merits is destined to disappear from the world.  In his words:

A state whose iniquities are numerous perishes immediately, as it is said:  "The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, etc." (Gen. 18:20).  Likewise for the entire world:  if their iniquities outweigh their merits, they are immediately destroyed, as it is said:  "The Lord saw how great was man's wickedness on earth" (Gen. 6:5).  The consideration is not based on the number of merits and iniquities, but on their magnitude.[1]

The perdition of a state or of the entire world, as we said, does not include the righteous.  They are saved, as is attested by Noah and his family being saved from the flood, and Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

By the laws of Heaven, also the righteous perish for not protesting against the wicked

Once the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and entered the promised land, the rules changed, at least as far as concerned the people of Israel.  Thereafter the righteous would not merit being saved when the Holy One, blessed be He, punished His people.  Rather, they would be held responsible, according to the principle that "all Israel are responsible one for another."[2] A rational explanation can be given for this:  the righteous are held guilty for the sins of the generation because they should have prevented the wicked from carrying out their evil devices, and having failed to do so, they are not worthy of being called righteous.  This is expressed in the gemara:   "Is it not written, 'they shall stumble over one another' (Lev. 26:37), meaning, One will stumble through the sin of the other, which teaches that all are held responsible for one another.  The reference there is to individuals who had the power to restrain [their fellows from evil] but did not."[3]

The punishment deserved by the righteous applies even in cases where the Holy One, blessed be He, knows that their protest would not have sufficed to bring the wicked back to the straight and narrow, as we see in the passage of gemara which follows:

Never did a favorable word go forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, of which He retracted for evil, save for the following, where it is written, "and the Lord said to him, 'Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who moan and groan because of all the abominations that are committed in it' "(Ezek. 9:4).  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Gabriel, Go and set a mark of ink upon the foreheads of the righteous, that the destroying angels may have no power over them; and a mark of blood upon the foreheads of the wicked, that the destroying angels may have power over them.  Said the Attribute of Justice before the Holy One, blessed be He, "Sovereign of the Universe!  Wherein are these different from those?"  "Those are completely righteous men, while these are completely wicked," replied He.  "Sovereign of the Universe!" it continued, "they had the power to protest but did not."  "It was fully known to Me that had they protested they would not have heeded them."[4]

One might argue that these righteous did not fulfill the commandment of reproving one's fellow, and therefore they were not truly righteous, even though the Holy One, blessed be He, knew that their protest would be of no avail.  Maimonides ruled regarding the commandment to reprove one's fellow:  "Whoever has the possibility of protesting but does not protest – such person is held guilty of the sin of the others, since he had the power to protest but did not."[5]

However, the rule that the righteous share responsibility for the sins of their generation because they should have protested against them and did not do so only holds with regard to punishment administered by the Holy One, blessed be He, and not punishment meted out by the courts.  The proof of this lies in the case of a city subverted to idolatry, in which regard Maimonides writes in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah (4.6):

Many courts are set up for them [the people of the city given over to idolatry] and they are judged.  If two witnesses testify that a given person worshipped other gods, and another witness testifies in his favor, such person is set aside.  If the city is found to have a majority of idolaters, they are taken to a higher court where their case is heard out, and then all those guilty of idolatry are killed by the sword.

From Maimonides' exposition we conclude that only the people who actually were guilty of idolatry are killed.  The only punishment meted out to the righteous living among them, i.e., those against whom there is no proof of idolatry, is that their property is burned, as the Halakhah instructs us:  "The possessions of the righteous in the city, they being the remaining inhabitants who have not been subverted along with the majority into practicing idolatry, are burned along with the booty; since they dwelled there, their wealth shall be lost" (loc. sit., 7).  Incidentally, such was Lot's fate, as well.  When he fled from Sodom, he sought to tarry in order to save his possessions,[6] but the Lord had decided otherwise for him; he was saved without his possessions.

The fate of the sinner's children

According to the laws of the Torah, children are not to be punished for the sins of their parents, as stated explicitly in Deuteronomy (24:16):  "Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents:  a person shall be put to death only for his own crime."[7] However, this law contradicts that which is said elsewhere:  "You shall not bow down to them or serve them.  For I the Lord your G-d am an impassioned G-d, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me" (Ex. 20:5).  The Sages noted this difficulty and resolved it as follows (Berakhot 7a):

One verse says, "visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children," and another verse says, "nor children be put to death for parents."  A contradiction was pointed out between these two verses, and the answer was given that there is no contradiction.  The one verse deals with children who continue in the same course as their parents, and the other verse with children who do not continue in the course of their parents.

Maimonides, however, did not accept this view, rather he explained the verse according to its plain sense:

Of the thirteen attributes … they are all attributes of mercy, save for one, namely visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children[8]… none other than for the sin of idolatry specifically, and for no other sin.  Proof can be found in the Ten Commandments:  "upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me [Heb. son'ai]"; and the term "one who rejects [soneh]" is used for none other than idolatry…  It goes no further than the fourth generation since a person does not see more than four generations of progeny.  Therefore, when the idolatrous inhabitants of the city[9] are put to death, the elder who is idolatrous is put to death along with his progeny, down to the fourth generation.  It is as if [the text] were describing – of all the commandments of the Almighty, which are undoubtedly part of all His works – that the progeny of those who worship idols be put to death, even if they be minors, along with their parents and grandparents.  This commandment comes up repeatedly throughout the Torah; as with the commandment regarding a city that has been subverted to worship other gods:   "Doom it and all that is in it to destruction" (Deut. 13:16).  All this is done in order to wipe out every trace of that which demands utter extinction, as we have explained.[10]

According to the law of "visiting the guilt of the parents on the children," all means must be employed to eradicate any incident of idolatry.  The existence of something that in any way detracts from the glory of the Lord's kingship is intolerable.


In conclusion, in principle the Holy One, blessed be He, does not punish the righteous when He decides to destroy a city, state, or even the entire world on account of the sinfulness of the majority.  But the same does not apply to the Jewish people; the righteous are held accountable for the sins of the community if they refrain from reproving the wicked.  However, this law does not apply to punishment meted out by Heaven.  If punishment is meted out by human beings, the righteous are not punished corporeally but only materially.  But when the sin is one of idolatry, Maimonides holds that the progeny of the sinners, as well, are to be put to death.[11]

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