Prayer is Never in Vain
It is written, “And the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners against the L-RD exceedingly” (Gen 13:13) and “the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is indeed exceedingly heavy” (Gen 18:20). Despite this, Abraham prayed to try and save them in the name of divine justice: “Will You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are …” (Gen 18:23-24).
Several points need to be clarified:
1. Without doubt, G-d knew that in Sodom there existed neither fifty, nor forty, nor even a single innocent man. What then is the reason for the drawn-out discussion between G-d and Abraham? G-d told Abraham, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will forgive … I will not destroy if I find there forty-five … I will not do it for the sake of the forty …” (Gen 18:26-29). G-d could have told Abraham, “Know that there are not even ten righteous men in all the city.” What is the reason for this exchange between G-d and Abraham? We know that in the Torah, not one letter is superfluous. What’s more, if there had been ten righteous men in Sodom, G-d would not have destroyed the city because of their merit, but in fact there were no innocent men at all to be found there.
2. The commentators ask another question: Why is it written, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”
We know that the people of Sodom were extremely wicked: “They knew the Master of the world and yet wanted to revolt against Him” (Sanhedrin 109a). “They were eager to satisfy their desires and their lusts” (Bereshith Rabba 41:10; Tanhuma Vayera 7). They were so perverse that it was difficult for them to have faith in the Creator of the Universe. Their depraved behavior put the existence of the world in danger, a world “built on kindness” (Ps 89:3), as they plunged it towards destruction by their licentiousness and denial of all the fundamental concepts that justify its existence.
They knew that after the flood, G-d took an oath to never again destroy the world (Shavuot 36a; Bereshith Rabba 34:10), and they took advantage of this promise to commit their abominations, thinking that they would not be punished. In order to satisfy their desires, their perversions became ever more provocative. Nevertheless, they were no worse than the generation of the flood, of which it is written, “the earth is filled with violence because of them” (Gen 6:13), a generation that sinned in double measure – as much against others as against G-d.
First of all, G-d desired to hide from Abraham His intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because He knew that Abraham would pray in order that even the wicked repent. As it is written, “That sins disappear from the earth” (Ps 104:35). It is not written “sinners”, but “sins” (Berachot 10a). But G-d didn’t want them to be saved, and He didn’t send them a prophet to reprimand or correct them, as He did for the generation of the flood, who were warned by Noah (Sanhedrin 108a), and as He did for the city of Nineveh, who were sent the prophet Jonah.
In fact, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were worse than those of the generation of the flood, of whom our Sages said, “Noah built the ark for 100 years, and during this entire time he called on them to repent” (Sanhedrin 108b). But they didn’t listen to him, for they had “corrupted their way upon the earth” (Gen 6:12). Even if G-d had sent a prophet to publicly rebuke the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, they would not have listened to him, for a man is not naturally inclined to agree that another man is right, even if sent by G-d. It is in a wicked man’s nature to steal and commit robbery, even thought he knows without doubt how serious it is. There arrives a time when nothing can correct such a man, to the point that even Abraham (to whom his servant Eliezer recounted the intrigues of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah) did not go and reprimand or exhort them to repent. Actually, why not? It is because he knew that he was incapable of correcting them. First of all, G-d hid from Abraham His intention to destroy them, for He knew that Abraham would have tried to oppose such a decree and that he would have, without doubt, shaken heaven and earth in order to save them from annihilation.
Yet in saying, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” G-d wanted that Abraham’s pleading on their behalf benefit the Children of Israel. If G-d had hidden from Abraham the punishment awaiting the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (something that would be known afterwards), Abraham would have been distraught. He would have also worried that if the Children of Israel were to sin, G-d would hide their punishment as well, and if they are deprived of the chance to correct themselves, the decree would be signed and the punishment would follow.
In other words, G-d thought, “It is not possible for Me to hide from Abraham what I am about to do to Sodom, since he will pray in their favor and his prayer will not be in vain – it will benefit his offspring.” This is confirmed by what is written immediately afterwards: “For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him.” Abraham would make sure that the Children of Israel would not be like the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, for they would receive a proper education and follow in the footsteps of their father. Even if they would sin, it would not be through malice (as did the people of Sodom and Gomorrah), but rather because the evil inclination had pushed and overwhelmed them, in the same sense as: “It’s the yeast in the dough that’s the cause” (Berachot 17a). Without a doubt, the Jewish people don’t lack righteous individuals, and so G-d couldn’t hide from Abraham the punishment awaiting Sodom and Gomorrah, for his prayer would benefit his children.
Now we can also understand the pleading of Abraham, who asked for mercy on behalf of fifty, forty, thirty … ten righteous individuals. G-d did not reveal to him that there wasn’t even one righteous person in Sodom because He wanted Abraham to continue praying for their survival. This was done in order that his prayer may help his descendants after him, for if in the future G-d were to raise an accusation against Israel, the merit of this act (Abraham’s prayer for the wicked) could be presented in Israel’s defense.
Abraham greatly feared arousing divine wrath because of his insistence, yet despite this he continued to pray in favor of the culprits. That prayer is an assurance for the Children of Israel that they will always be warned before being punished. In addition, Abraham prayed without respite concerning the number of righteous individuals, until G-d told him that there were none at all in Sodom, and that they are all guilty to the highest degree. At that point Abraham kept quiet. But this prayer will protect his children, and in addition it has the merit of hiding from Satan – from the forces of evil – the sins of Israel, so that he cannot accuse them. If he wanted to accuse them, the prayer of Abraham on behalf of the wicked will protect them. The accuser will then have to give up because the sins of Israel are surely not worse than those of people of the Sodom for whom Abraham interceded.
This is an important teaching valid for all times. This shows us that when one prays to save the wicked, such a prayer protects the one who pronounces it (as well as his descendants) from the accusations of Satan. In addition, before punishing, G-d sends warnings to the offenders – suffering that should bring them to repent – as it is written, “The L-RD desired to oppress him and He afflicted him” (Isa 53:10). The Sages explain: “Suffering is for the good of man” (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabba 13), and “Israel corrects its ways because of suffering” (Menachot 53b). In effect, G-d desires that offenders repent and correct themselves of their faults, which is why He doesn’t hide punishment, something that would definitely annul the possibility of prayer and repentance.
Now we can understand why G-d revealed to Abraham what He was about to do. This revelation is truly a kindness to Israel, given that Abraham proved his devotion to them.
We may be permitted to think that Abraham prayed on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah well before G-d revealed to him what He was about to do. Yet after this revelation, Abraham put himself in danger by taking the risk of awakening divine wrath against him. But no, G-d didn’t show His anger; on the contrary, He allowed him to plead for a long time because He desired that this prayer benefit the Children of Israel for all generations.
This is why it is written, “For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may observe the way of the L-RD, to do righteousness and justice…” (Gen 18:19). Despite all the tests and obstacles that Abraham went through, his actions constitute a lesson for us, and he provides merit for his descendants so that they may overcome tests, repent of their sins, and serve G-d with complete devotion.