the people of Sedom were evil and sinners towards G-d beyond
all measure (13:13). Despite their depravity, Avraharm Avinu
argued, challenged, pleaded and negotiated with G-d for
their welfare. In fact it is specifically this trait of
caring and concern for disgusting people
a trait that characterized all the Avot and Imahot - that shows their greatness. They may have despised
the evil of Sedom but Sedomites were to be spared as people.
Despite the efforts of Abraham, the people of Sedom were
so evil that G-d had no choice but to destroy them.
A close look at the negotiations between Abraham and G-d reveal that this was more than an argument about the limits of mercy. Avraham not only asks that the righteous be spared it would be sacrilege to kill the innocent with the guilty - he practically demands that the merit of the few righteous extend to sparing the life of the many wicked. "Would you still destroy it, and not spare the place for the sake of fifty good people within the city? (18:24). However, Abraham understood that in order for the righteous to save the wicked there must be some connection between the two. Thus he asked that Sedom be spared for 50 righteous people btoch hair, in the midst of the city. Living in an environment only with others whose sole goal is to become more righteous is most beautiful, yet it is irrelevant for society at large. For righteous people to have any impact on society, they must be in the midst of the city, serving as an example to others. They must strive to be tzadikim in the heart of downtown notwithstanding the inevitable difficulties involved. While becoming a tzadik is much more difficult when surrounded by others less pious, it is only this type of tzadik who can save a city.
Furthermore the fact that a secular society allows for religious freedom and expression in its midst testifies to its righteousness. Thus Abraham argued even if the tzadikim in Sedom have no influence on the evil doers, the fact that they can dwell there in peace should be enough to save them. They really arent pure evil after all, Avraham argued. G-d of course accepted Avrahams argument the only problem being they could not find such righteous people.
Rav Shimson Raphael Hirsch based on a subtle change in the text points out that even in regards to tolerating tzadikim not all cases are equally meritorious. G-d in describing His willingness to spare the people of Sedom uses the expression Lo Ashcheet, I will not destroy, if we can find 45, 20 or 10 tzadikikm. No destruction but some form of punishment. However if it is to be 30 or 40 righteous people who spare the city then G-d declarers Lo eesheh, I will do nothing, meaning no punishment at all. Why the change in terminology and resultant punishment? So Rav Hirsch explains that tolerance only has meaning when the tolerated are substantial but not threatening. If the minority group is large enough that they will not go away perhaps even influencing policy then the toleration by the majority group says nothing about their morality. They tolerated out of fear and lack of choice. Similarly if the minority group is so insignificant then they can be tolerated because they are overlooked. Only if a majority tolerates a group that cant be overlooked and cant threaten societal norms 30 or 40 in our case - can moral significance be attached to its benevolence. Thus 45, 20 or 10 will save the city from destruction only, but 30 or 40 will spare the city any harm.
We must all strive to be the tzadikim btoch hair, those who by public open example can influence other for good. Those who have not yet reached that level must not only tolerate but also admire the tzadikim. May our efforts lead to the sparing of further tragedies for the world at large. Shabbat Shalom!