The story of this prayer is fascinating. Avraham experienced a revelation in which he was told that the city of Sodom was to be destroyed due to the terrible acts of its citizens. They steal, they rape, they reject the needy. They are bad people. We might have thought that Avraham who stood for righteous behavior and justice, whose entire world-view was diametrically opposed to the behavior of the Sodomites, would be pleased to hear this news about Sodom being slated for destruction. But Avraham surprises us. He chooses to pray.
And what does he ask of G-d?
Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the midst of the city; will You even destroy and not forgive the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst?
(Breishit 18, 24)
After his prayer is accepted, but it turns out that there aren?t fifty righteous men in Sodom, he continues to plea ? Maybe there are forty-five righteous men? Maybe forty? Would thirty suffice? And twenty? How about ten?
Each request is answered in the affirmative. Indeed, G-d answers, if there are ten righteous men in Sodom, “I will not destroy for the sake of the ten.” (Ibid, Ibid, 32)
And here Avraham stops. He does not continue to ask. He understands that if there aren?t ten righteous men in Sodom, the city and its residents have no right to exist.
This prayer is interesting. Why can ten righteous men save an entire city? Sodom was heavily populated and ten people would be a small percentage of the population. Why would the evil inhabitants be saved if they just happened to have righteous neighbors?
Rabbi Nachman of Breslev (one of the great leaders of the Hassidic movement, from Ukraine, at the end of the 18th century) offered an interesting answer in his unique style. He does not ask and does not answer, but rather tells an imaginary story and leaves us to think of the message. Here is his story:
There was a king who had a dream, and in his dream he saw that the yield that was going to grow that coming year was going to be a strange yield and that anyone who would eat from it would go insane. What should be done? The king summoned his closest advisor and told him of the dream. The advisor suggested that the king save some of the yield of the previous year and eat only from that. But the king rejected this suggestion with the following brilliant claim: If only the king maintains his sanity when all rest of the citizens go insane, they will all think that he ? the king ? is crazy. So the advisor thought of another idea: The king would eat from the crazy yield like all the other citizens and go insane too, as would the advisor. But prior to eating from the strange yield, they would each make a mark on their foreheads so they would remember that they are insane. Thus, despite their insanity, they would be able to administer the land sanely. They would go insane, but at least they would be aware of the fact that they were crazy.
This story helps us to understand the secret of Avraham?s prayer. If there would be ten righteous men in Sodom, the people of Sodom could plummet to the depths of evil, but would still have a vivid reminder of the fact that they were on a mistaken path. There would still be ten righteous men who do not allow them to sink into evil to the point that they would completely lose their moral compass.
A person can sin. Everyone sins sometimes. The important question is not ?Do I sin? but rather ?Am I aware of the fact that I am sinning?. Awareness of sin, of human weaknesses, of moral missteps ? awakens the conscience. Awareness brings about regret, requests for forgiveness, and repentance. Without it ? we would lose all hope.