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A Tale Of Two Cities
‘… The Destructive Force Does Not Distinguish Between the Good and the Evil’
(Bava Kamma 60a)



Our daf cites R. Yosef who expounds the verse (Shemos 12:22), “… ve’atem lo tetze’u ish mipesach beiso ad boker – … and, as for you, no man shall emerge from the doorway of his house until morning.”

The passage in parshas Bo discusses the plague of makkas bechoros – the slaying of the [Egyptian] firstborn – that took place when the Israelites departed Egypt.

R. Yosef understands that once the forces of destruction are empowered, they do not distinguish between the objects of their wrath – those who are wicked and, unfortunately, the righteous who are found in their midst.

Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 3:1) relating to this Gemara, states, “One whose sins overwhelm his merits is judged as one who is wicked and is sentenced to death at the hand of Heaven. Similarly, if the collective total of the evil of the inhabitants of a particular country overwhelms their collective merits, the entire country is punished with destruction.

Rabbi Velvel Soloveitchick, zt”l, the Brisker Rav (Imrei Chen al HaTorah – Parshat Vayera) explains Rambam as follows: Even though the wicked who dwell in that country are sentenced to death for their personal misdeeds, in the instance where such people predominate then even those innocent righteous who dwell among them suffer the same fate as their sinful neighbors.


Abraham’s Plea

The passage in parshat Vayera (Bereishit 18:23-33) relates that when Abraham was informed of the impending destruction of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he proceeded to intercede on their behalf. He appealed to Hashem, “If there be found righteous individuals in the city will You, Heaven forbid, destroy them along with the wicked? Won’t You, Hashem, spare the city on behalf of the righteous?”

Though Hashem conceded to Abraham’s pleas, He sadly informed him that there weren’t sufficient (at least ten – see Rashi ad loc.) righteous individuals to warrant saving the cities.


Abraham’s Presumption

Lechem Mishneh (Hilchos Teshuva 3:1) asks, according to Rambam’s understanding, that a city wherein the majority of its residents are wicked that the righteous suffer destruction along with the wicked, what did Abraham expect of Hashem in sparing these cities?

He answers that, indeed, according to the natural order of judgment, the cities were deserving of destruction; however, Abraham knew that the power of prayer had the unique ability, in the right circumstances, to overturn a harsh judgment, for prayer rouses Hashem’s mercy.


Tzaddikim Gemurim

The Brisker Rav (Imrei Chen ad loc.) offers another explanation (citing Avodah Zarah 4a), that there is a difference between the ordinary righteous and tzaddikim gemurim – those whose righteousness is exceptional and extraordinary, who truly possess an impeccable record of no sin.

While the former are punished along with their wicked neighbors, the latter are spared any unintended punishment.

Thus Abraham, in his entreaties, was referring to the fact that there might be found in those cities individuals whose righteousness is impeccable.


Divine Wrath

The Brisker Rav offers yet another explanation (Kisvei HaGriz, Parashas Vayera): There are different degrees of evil. At times the wickedness is so pervasive that it engenders charon af – the Divine wrath. At other times there is indeed wickedness but at a level that is not as pervasive.

Thus, Abraham’s prayer was exactly “Let this not be a time of [Your] Divine wrath so that the righteous not be destroyed due to the sins of the wicked.”

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.