For the Sake of the Innocent Fifty
© Elliott batTzedek 2006
Mishkan Shalom, Philadelphia
Genesis 18: 22 – 33: God determines to destroy Sodom. Abraham argues with God, reminding God that God must live by the moral rules God established, and asks if God would destroy the guilty along with the innocent if Sodom had fifty innocent people. God says that, if there are fifty such people, the whole will be forgiven for their sake. Abraham continues haggling, bargaining God down to saving the entire city for the sake only ten innocent people. God agrees, “I will not destroy, for the sake of ten.”
This is the scale of justice established by Abraham and God – all of the evildoers on one side, ten innocent people on the other. And, as Jewish commentary cautions, not just any ten people, but ten people who are a subculture of righteousness, who work together to try to change their society from within. For only ten such people, even a land mired in deceit and destruction must be spared.
As a U.S. citizen, I find this equation reassuring. Within the deceit and corruption and violence and hate, there are so many more than ten of us working together so hard, so constantly. But can I, can we, apply the standard of God’s justice to other societies? In other societies, as in our own, where some people commit, justify, and glorify acts of tremendous violence, can we even begin to believe that ten justice-seeking people might turn the tide? That just ten people, working together, can be reason enough to save a civilization from the power of God’s wrath, or even from the human-made curses of confinement, starvation, of death by disease and hunger and despair?
Can my own people – as human and frightened and irrational and generous and kind and vengeful and forgiving as any other – can my own people honor God’s scale for mercy, compassion, justice? Dare we? If so, how many of the thousands upon thousands upon thousands upon thousands of non-violent, justice-building Palestinians need my people acknowledge before we stop our obsessive counting of only those few who do violence? How many, knowing that God, with God’s compassion and mercy beyond understanding, established that all must be saved for the sake of ten?
Can we be one-half as compassionate as God?
Then twenty is the number of good people, working for change, to require that all be saved.
There are twenty such people in Palestine.
Can we be one-quarter as compassionate?
Then forty is the number.
There are forty.
Dare we try to be 1/60th as compassionate as God?
Then six hundred is the number.
There are six hundred.
And what if, as human as we are, we can be only 1/1000th as compassionate as God?
Then the number is ten thousand.
There are ten thousand.
Oh, my people, my chosen people, can you see them? Do you dare let yourself see them? And when you dare see them, do you dare be Abraham, willing to barter for their lives even with God, so certainly with our elected and hired and self-appointed community leaders – our rabbis, institutional officials, even with the Israeli government? How many will be enough, for us to stop counting only the bombers and the rocket launchers and their screaming supporters? How long until we look through Abraham’s eyes, and seek reasons to save, not to condemn, knowing that merely ten is the number bargained for in our names?
On this, the 49th day of a counting which we do to remind ourselves that counting matters, I offer this prayer for the 50th day: Baruch atah Yah, eloheynu veylohey avoteynu ve’imoteynu: For the sake of the righteousness of my ancestors, for the sake of their good deeds, please hear my prayer: Please teach us to count with compassion, even when we are afraid, and to count with justice, most especially in the face of violence. May we stand proudly in the long shadow of Abraham, and count with a fierce determination to stand up for we know to be right.