“Perhaps there are fifty righteous people in the midst of the city ….” (Bereishis 18:24)
When Hashem told Avraham that He would destroy S’dom, Avraham began to pray on their behalf, negotiating downward (from fifty to ten) the minimum number of tzaddikim that would spare the city from being destroyed.
R’ Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Sefer Maznayim L’Torah, asks why the Torah specifies “in the midst of the city.” Would we think that Avraham was suggesting that tzaddikim from outside of S’dom should be considered?
R’ Sorotzkin recounts two interesting incidents that serve to answer this question.
On a bus, he once overheard two young people boasting about the partying and card-playing event they had organized on Yom Kippur. They noted that all their friends had come, except for so-and-so who “is a big tzaddik because he fasts on Yom Kippur.” R’ Sorotzkin observed that one could sin extensively during the year, but if he doesn’t eat on Yom Kippur he is called a “big tzaddik.”
On the other hand, when R’ Sorotzkin once inquired about the character of a certain individual in the yeshiva, the staff told him that the boy’s yiras shamayim was lacking a little bit. Asked for more details, they revealed that he sometimes came up to ten minutes late to Shacharis. Obviously, the “wayward” person of the yeshiva was on a higher level than the tzaddik in the first incident.
This is what happened when Avraham Avinu prayed for mercy for the people of S’dom. There were surely no tzaddikim in S’dom, but perhaps there were people who could be considered tzaddikim if contrasted with the wickedness prevalent in S’dom. It is well known that when someone sought overnight lodging in S’dom, his limbs would be cut if the bed was too short for him, and forcibly stretched if the bed was too long. The Medrash relates that if the bed fit him, they would find a bed for him that did not fit, but the tzaddik would allow him to remain in that bed. It was such tzaddikim that Avraham Avinu was alluding to in his prayers for mercy.
Our Sages relate that when Hashem saw there would be a tzaddik like Avraham Avinu, He resolved to create the world; otherwise, the world would not have been created. Avraham was a righteous person who was the foundation of the world. He was solely dedicated to sanctifying the Name of Hashem. When he sat at the doorway of his tent three days after his bris milah at the age of 99, in the heat of the day, looking for guests, he desired not merely to give them food and lodging. He wanted to teach his guests the ways of Hashem, to foster emunah, belief in Hashem.
But when judging others, Avraham Avinu did not compare the status of the tzaddik to himself. Rather, he expanded the definition of a tzaddik.
Rav Tzvi Hirsch Horowitz, the chief rabbi of Chortkov, had been saving money for a long time to pay for his daughter’s wedding expenses. He had managed to save over 500 golden coins, a very large sum, which he kept in a special purse hidden in his shtender, which he used for davening every day.
On the night before Pesach, when R’ Tzvi Hirsch Horowitz searched the house for chametz, he discovered that the purse was missing. People speculated about the chief rabbi’s gabbai, Meir, who had recently moved to a different city where he opened a grocery store and was doing well. They wondered where he had attained the means to open a store, and suspected him of taking the coins for himself.
R’ Tzvi Hirsch, who considered every person meritorious and thought well of everyone, refused to entertain such accusations about his former gabbai, who had been a loyal employee and had served him devotedly for so many years. He told everyone that it was forbidden to suspect an innocent person. However, his family members insisted that he was highly suspect, and R’ Tzvi finally acquiesced and agreed to go speak with his former gabbai.
R’ Tzvi Hirsch traveled to the city where Meir had settled. Meir was ecstatic to see the rabbi and was sure that he had come to wish him well in his new venture. Meir was therefore surprised when R’ Tzvi brought up the matter of the missing purse. The gabbai realized that he was suspected of stealing the money, and he immediately confessed that he had needed some money to open the store and had been unable to resist the Evil Inclination. He offered the chief rabbi 200 golden coins on the spot, with a promise to repay the rest of the money over the next six months.
But it was not the gabbai who had taken the money. A maid who had been working in R’ Tzvi Hirsch’s home had found the purse and given it to her husband. When some time had passed and no one seemed to be looking for the missing money, they began to spend the coins. The husband went to a bar and bought drinks for everyone, paying with one of the gold coins. When asked where he had come into this fortune, he claimed that he had found it. The next week, he once again paid for all the drinks and said he had found the coin.
The story did not sound credible to the bar owner, and he spoke to the judge in town, who advised that if the customer became intoxicated he would surely reveal the secret. The bar owner did as instructed, and the man disclosed that when his wife had been a maid in the home of the chief rabbi she had discovered the purse of gold coins in the lectern and had stolen it.
When the judge heard about this, he immediately sent soldiers to the man’s home, where they found the purse with gold coins. The judge notified the chief rabbi of the turn of events and the purse was returned to its rightful owner.
Confounded by his gabbai’s response, R’ Tzvi Hirsch traveled back to the gabbai. “Why did you say you had stolen my purse when you had nothing to do with it?” he asked.
The former gabbai explained that he had wanted to relieve the chief rabbi’s distress and angst, so he took the responsibility for the loss of the purse.
Rav Tzvi Hirsch Horowitz apologized profusely for allowing any suspicion of Meir to gain traction and begged for his forgiveness. He then gave him a very special bracha that in the merit of his actions he and his entire family should enjoy tremendous wealth, great honor and respect for many generations.
Because of his loyalty, respect and extraordinary honor for his rabbi, Meir became the great Baron Rothschild, whose wealth is legendary.