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It's Never Too Late

November 7, 2020

It’s a week when we are all focused on the responsibility of judges and officials to ensure that no verdict or decision is issued without meticulous research and unbiased fairness. No, Rashi was not referring to counting votes or electing leaders, but he learns this from a word in our parsha. The Torah states:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה'  זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה וְחַטָּאתָם כִּי כָבְדָה מְאֹד. אֵרֲדָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה וְאִם לֹא אֵדָעָה.

So Hashem said, “Because the outcry of Sedom and Amorah has become great, and because their sin has been very grave, I will descend and see: if they act in accordance with its outcry which has come to Me- then destruction! And if not, I will know.” (Bereishit 8:20-21)

The commentators were bothered by the words “ארדא נא, I will descend.” Did Hashem need to come down, so to speak, to get a closer look at what was happening? Of course not. What are we to learn from these words?

Rashi explains: “למד לדיינים שלא יפסקו דיני נפשות אלא בראיה, He taught judges to never issue a ruling in a capital case without [carefully] looking into the matter.” Hashem surely knew very well exactly what the people of Sedom had been doing, but He wanted to teach an important lesson to human judges. Just as He waited to declare definitively that Sedom would be destroyed until descending to study the matter more closely, so too a judge may never sentence a defendant to capital punishment without very careful examination.

The problem is that this doesn’t seem to fit with Rashi’s understanding of the parsha until now. Twice, Rashi has already indicated that the decision was made, that Sedom was going to be destroyed! Firstly, at the beginning of the parsha, we learned of Avraham’s three visitors, who turned out to be three angels, and Rashi explained that each angel had a specific job: “אחד לבשר את שרה ואחד להפוך את סדום ואחד לרפואת אברהם, one was to inform Sarah [of her upcoming pregnancy], one was to overturn Sedom, and one was to heal Avraham. (Rashi Bereishit 18:2)” So the angel to destroy Sedom was already on his way! Secondly, when the angels left  Avraham, the Torah states, “ויקמו משם האנשים וישקפו על פני סדום, so the men got up from there and gazed down toward Sedom, (Bereishit 18:16)” and Rashi notes that the word “וישקפו (and they saw)” implies impending doom and destruction. Meaning, it had already been decided that the angels were there to destroy Sedom. So if it seems clear that Hashem has already made His decision, that the demolition was already on its way, then how is it meaningful to tell us that Hashem descended to Sedom to investigate? Hadn’t their fate already been sealed? Surely, when judges are investigating a capital case, the research should be done before issuing the verdict!

Perhaps we can find an answer in what might be the most famous biblical story of repentance. After a failed attempt to flee, Yonah finally went to the people of Nineveh. He proclaimed, “עוד ארבעים יום ונינוה נהפכת, another forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed. (Yonah 3:4)” Nineveh quickly repented, and Hashem reversed the decree. In the next chapter, Yonah was very angry, as we read, “וירע אל יונה רעה גדולה ויחר לו, this displeased Yonah greatly, and he was angry. (Yonah 4:1)” Why was Yonah so upset? Rashi explains, “אמר עכשיו יאמרו העכו"ם שאני נביא השקר, now the non-Jews will say that I am a false prophet.” Yonah was bothered by the fact that he foretold Nineveh’s destruction, he announced that the decision had been made and the judgment was being issued. It seemed certain: in forty days Nineveh would be destroyed. And now, so quickly, Hashem was going to reverse the decree? Isn’t it too late? Wasn’t their fate sealed?

Yonah needed to learn a very important lesson: in the eyes of Hashem, it’s never too late. And that is what He was teaching when He descended to check on Sedom as well. True, the verdict was issued, and the plan was beginning to unfold. Hashem knew very well that Sedom was deserving of destruction, and that was the specific jobs of one of the angels in Avraham’s home. The messenger of destruction was on his way. And yet, it wasn’t too late to change. As we say on Yom Kippur, “עד יום מותו תחכה לו, until the day of death, Hashem awaits our repentance.”

Ultimately, the people of Sedom never repented, and despite Avraham’s pleas, Hashem destroyed them. But the lesson for all of us is clear: even if it seems like the decree is decided, and even if it feels as if the plan is in motion, it’s never too late to do teshuva.

Good Shabbos!

Rabbi Fox

Mon, January 25 2021 12 Shevat 5781