"The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah," John Martin, 1852
"The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah," John Martin, 1852

Are guilty or hateful leaders worthy of our prayer?

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Genesis 18:1-22:24

As I studied a beloved text in this week’s parashah, Vayera, a whole new level of meaning revealed itself to me.

The text is the cherished story of Abraham’s bold challenge to God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God has let Abraham know that “the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great,” implicitly revealing God’s plans to destroy the two cities.  (Genesis 18:20)

Abraham, summoning his moral strength in the face of God, came forward and called out, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent people within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Gen. 18:23-25)

I had always thought the plain meaning of the text was that the city should not be destroyed if there were righteous people in it. The principle was that the righteous minority should not be punished for the sins of the wicked majority.

But taking a characteristic deep dive into the words of the text and the perspectives of various classical commentaries, Israeli Biblical scholar Nehema Leibowitz asks, “On whose behalf did Abraham intercede? To save the righteous? Or the wicked as well?” (Nehama Leibowitz, “Studies in Genesis”)

Biblical scholar and Hebrew poet Solomon Dubnow points out that Abraham begins by praying that the righteous should not be swept away with the guilty because of the sins of the guilty (Gen. 18:23). Here, Abraham’s plea is to save the innocent, even if the rest of the city is destroyed.

But in the next sentence, Abraham asserts that if there are 50 innocent people in the city, then the city — “the place”— should not be destroyed at all (Gen. 18:24). Consider the logic of this: The entire city (of mostly wicked people, from God’s perspective) should be spared if there are any innocent people in it. In other words, Abraham is praying to spare the guilty people simply because they live in proximity to innocents.

Confusingly, in the following verse (Gen. 18:25), Abraham reverts to praying especially for the innocent, saying, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty.”

There are times I pray earnestly only for the political leaders I consider good.

Rabbi David ben Samuel Halevi, in his commentary on Rashi, tries to resolve the apparent contradiction among the verses. He asserts that Abraham would not have had to even ask God to spare the righteous. Of course God would not have killed the innocent: “That is but justice and requires no prayer.” The daring part of Abraham’s prayer, by this logic, is the request to God to spare the wicked, subverting the rule of justice by extending mercy to them. But then Abraham concludes that God should at the very least spare the innocent, since “this is not a question of seeking a special favor but is only justice” (Leibowitz).

Of course, we know how the story ends. There are not 50 innocent people in the city, nor 45, nor 30, nor even 10. However we may feel about it, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is described as the obliteration of two utterly evil cities.

But the head-spinning analysis we saw in the commentaries raises a question with implications far broader than this particular Biblical event. The question is: For whose well-being do we pray? Do we wish for the best for those whose voices we find objectionable? Do we hope that those incarcerated for crimes be spared further suffering? Are the guilty and the hateful worthy of our prayer?

Such questions may arise for many of us especially when we recite a prayer for our country in these troubled times. What goes through your mind when you recite such words as these from Siddur Lev Shalem (the most recent Conservative movement prayerbook): “Pour out your blessings upon this land, upon its inhabitants, upon its leaders, its judges, officers, and officials, who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public”?

When I recite these words, I usually think about the latest political outrage that has consumed my attention during the week. Honestly, there are times I pray earnestly only for the political leaders I consider good. Occasionally a snide thought arises that the others — the bad ones —  need prayer.

But occasionally my heart is big enough to think about how hard it is to be a civic leader right now and how complex the problems are that face these officials every day. Sometimes I imagine those people — the “bad ones” — sitting at home enjoying a meal with their families or playing with their children — living lives much like mine.

When we pray for our country — or any country — in these very difficult times, sitting safely in synagogue or in our own homes, can we stretch our hearts to care about all the people of the city, the state, the country?

If we all did this, even for a few minutes each week, our country might become a better place.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.