Rabbi Bernard Fox
“It would be a sacrilege for you to do this thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked. Then the righteous would be like the wicked. It would be a sacrilege for you. Should the judge of all the land not do justice?” (Beresheit 18:25)
Terrible things happen to people every day! We wonder why. Hashem is omniscient and omnipotent. How can He allow these catastrophes to occur? The question of why apparently good people suffer in this world is one of the most basic theological problems. At some point, almost every person is confronted with this question. Unfortunately, some who do not find an adequate answer abandon the Torah.
Avraham confronted Hashem with this very question. Hashem tells Avraham that He is prepared to destroy Sedom. Avraham challenges Hashem. He asks Hashem how He can destroy the entire city. Certainly, within the city there are some righteous individuals. Is it fitting that the righteous should perish with the evildoers? Rashi expands on Avraham’s argument. He explains that Avraham was concerned with the lesson that humanity would derive from such indiscriminate destruction. They would assume that the Almighty does not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. They would recall other incidents of widespread destruction visited upon humanity – for example, the Deluge – and conclude that these incidents also represent examples of indiscriminate destruction. They would conclude that the fate of the righteous and the wicked are the same.
Hashem responds to Avraham and agrees that if there is a righteous community in Sedom – even a few individuals – He will spare the city from destruction on their behalf. Ultimately, this righteous community is not found in Sedom and the city is destroyed. But not before the one righteous individual – Lote – and his family are rescued. The apparent lesson of this narrative is that Hashem is not indiscriminate in His punishments and the innocent are not destroyed along with the wicked. Instead, the righteous will be rescued from the fate of the wicked.
But this lesson does not seem to correspond with out everyday experiences. We observe innocents suffer and we cannot help but wonder why Hashem does not respond to the cries of these people as He responded to Avraham.
It is difficult to answer this question. The following comments are not an attempt to provide a comprehensive response. But our parasha does provide some important insights into this issue. These insights are not a complete answer. They do provide a basic foundation and should not be overlooked. But before we can consider these insights, we must evaluate the question more thoroughly.
Although this question is very troubling, it is also somewhat simplistic. From where does the question arise? People turn to and embrace religion for a variety of reasons. Some are seeking meaning and direction in life; some find that religion provides a needed sense of community and belonging. For others, religion provides a sense of security in a very frightening world and many find consolation in the love bestowed upon us by Hashem. But each of these motivations impacts and shades our relationship with Hashem. The motivation inevitably prejudices the way in which we perceive Hashem and relate to Him. For example, a person turning to religion for security will tend to envision Hashem as an omnipotent deity that cares for and provides for those who loyally follow Him. One who seeks love, will interpret Hashem as a compassionate, loving heavenly father. The issue is not whether these characterizations are correct. The important issue is their origin. These perceptions of Hashem are subjective and the product of a personal need. They are not the product of objective analysis.
When we ask where is Hashem when the innocent are suffering, we must be careful to fully consider the origin of the question. If the question arises from a sense of abandonment and disappointment, we must be wary. We have no right to assume that the Almighty is what we want Him to be or what we need Him to be. He is not the product of our needs. We are the product of His will. We cannot establish expectations for His behavior. If we ask the question from the perspective of expectations we have of Hashem, the question is simplistic. Instead, we can only try to learn and except the lessons that the Torah teaches us. In other words, if our question arises from our own personal needs, it may not have a suitable answer. We cannot require Hashem to be what we want Him to be. We can only approach the issue of suffering if we are willing to give up our subjective perspective and learn from the Torah.
Let us now return to Avraham’s petition. Avraham argued that Hashem should not destroy the righteous of Sedom with the wicked. The innocent and wicked should not experience the same fate. Hashem seemed to accept this argument and agreed to spare Sedom for the sake of the righteous. Of course, this is a wonderful response. It is the response that provides contentment and gratification to every reader of the Torah. It corresponds with the way we want to perceive Hashem. But is it this response consistent with what we know about Hashem? It would not seem so! We are so pleased with Hashem’s response that we neglect to consider it with a critical eye. The Torah does tell us that sometimes the innocent do suffer with the wicked! Where does the Torah teach us this disturbing lesson? Actually, the source is very well-known.
Hashem is poised to redeem Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. The moment has come for the final plague – the Plague of the Firstborn. All of the firstborn of Egypt will be killed. But those of Bnai Yisrael will be spared. However, there is one condition. The blood of the Pascal lamb must be spread on the doorposts and lintels of the homes of Bnai Yisrael. Hashem will pass over these homes and they will be untouched by the plague. But Hashem warns Bnai Yisrael; they must not leave their homes that night. Why can they not stir from their homes? Rashi quotes the well-known comments of our Sages. He explains that once the Almighty give permission to the forces of destruction to visit death upon humanity, these forces do not distinguish between the righteous and wicked! On this last night in Egypt the forces of destruction will rule the darkness. They cannot invade the homes of Bnai Yisrael that are protected by the mitzvah of the Pascal Lamb. But outside these homes these forces have complete reign. They will spare no one – not even the righteous.
For most of us this is a difficult idea to acknowledge. Rashi’s comments and their implications are hard to accept and easy to forget. But they are clear and undeniable. Sometimes, Hashem releases forces of natural disaster and disease upon humanity. These forces are blind and indifferent. If we expose ourselves to these forces, we cannot expect to be spared through our righteousness or innocence.
But how can we reconcile these comments with Avraham’s dialogue with Hashem. Does Hashem not acknowledge that the wicked and innocent deserve different ends? How can Hashem allow these forces of destruction to destroy the innocent with the evildoer?
“And it was when he took them outside he said, “Escape with you life. Do not look behind you and do not tarry anywhere on the plain. Escape to the mountain so that you are not destroyed.” (Beresheit 19:17)
Let us consider another incident in the parasha. Two angels visit Lote in Sedom. One has been assigned the mission of destroying Sedom. The other has been charged with the responsibility of saving Lote and his family. The rescuing angel admonishes Lote to leave the city swiftly. He and his company should not tarry or even pause to glance behind themselves at the destruction of the city. Radak explains that Lote and his family fled the city a few moments before its destruction. They could not be saved from the midst of the devastation. They could only flee ahead of the fire and destruction that would fall upon the city. Any delay, even the pause needed for a quick backwards glance, would have placed them in the midst of a destruction from which they would not be spared. In other words, the angel could only save Lote and his family by removing them from the city before the destruction began. The angel did not have the power to rescue them from the midst of the destruction.
Lote understands this distinction. He fears that he will not be able to outrun the destruction of Sedom. He asks the angel if he and his family might not seek refuge in a nearby city. In this request the same concept is evident. Lote could only be saved by remaining ahead of the path of devastation. But if he would be overtaken by the devastation, he would not be spared.
The angel also acknowledges this limitation. He tells Lote that his request has been granted. He urges Lote to quickly flee to the city. The angel explains that he cannot destroy Sedom until Lote is safe. Again, the same principle is apparent. Lote cannot be saved from the midst of destruction. He can only escape by remaining outside of its path.
The fundamental message that emerges from these interchanges between Lote and the angel is that Hashem would only save Lote by removing him from Sedom before its destruction. But He would not protect Lote if he remained in Sedom or allowed himself to be caught in the midst of the destruction.
Torah Temimah uses this concept to resolve the apparent contradiction between Rashi’s comments in regard to the Plague of the Firstborn and Avraham’s successful appeal to Hashem. Hashem agreed with Avraham that the righteous should not be destroyed with the wicked. However, He did not agree that the righteous should be rescued from the midst of destruction. The rescue of the righteous requires that they remain outside of the path of destruction. Even Hashem’s angels can only save us by removing us from this path. But the forces of destruction – once released by Hashem – do not exercise discretion. They act indiscriminately and destroy the wicked and innocent who are caught in their path.