In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Before that destruction occurs, Abraham argues with G-d, trying to save the cities for the sake of the righteous people who are therein.
After G-d reveals his plan, Abraham asks:
“Will You also stamp out the righteous along with the wicked? What if there should be fifty righteous people in the midst of the city?”
Because every word in Torah has meaning, along the way someone asked– “What does it mean that the righteous must be not just “in” the city, but rather “in the midst of” the city?
The commentary to that verse explains that “in the midst of the city” means the fifty righteous people…
must display their righteousness not only privately, but also in public, in the midst of the city. The test of righteousness is that one is ready to act upon his convictions even in a hostile environment. Furthermore, the truly righteous person should be involved with his fellows, trying to influence them to improve.
Stone Edition Chumash at 83 (Artscroll 2000).
As my study partner and I discussed this text the other night, I thought the commentary made perfect sense. After all, to be righteous means to act “in an upright, moral way,” (dictionary.com), and if a person is moral at home, but immoral in public, the community would not imagine that person was truly righteous (so why should Gd count them as such?). To be righteous is to do the “morally correct” thing even when we are surrounded by others who are behaving immorally in a public forum.
But after our study session ended, I’ve kept thinking about that third sentence. What about the idea that a “truly righteous person should be involved with his fellows, trying to influence them to improve”? What does it mean to be “involved with” others in a way that would give us “influence” over them?
Is it enough that we behave morally so that they see our example?
Or, when we see immoral behavior occurring, do we have an obligation to challenge those who are behaving immorally?
If we are going to do or say more, how might we go about that so as to not violate other Jewish expectations regarding our behavior — like the prohibition against shaming another person in public? After all, the Talmud tells us: “Shaming another in public is like shedding blood.” Baba Metzia 58b, and “Throw yourself into a blazing furnace rather than shame a neighbor in public.” Berakot, 43b.
What if we try speaking to someone in private, so as to not shame publicly, but thereafter his or her behavior does not change?
Gd knows when I have been faced with such situations in the past I have made choices that, in retrospect, certainly were not the best choice for each situation. So I won’t even pretend to have a clue about whether, when, and how one should confront and try to influence people who are behaving immorally in the midst of the city.
But I do believe that the path to holiness requires that we struggle with these seemingly unanswerable questions, that we challenge ourselves to think about how to balance these values and virtues, so that then, when we see immoral behavior in the midst of the city, we at least know how to think about the issues involved and we give ourselves a chance to make the holiest decision possible.
Shavua tov, jen