This Parsha this week is Parshas Vayaira. In the Parsha, Hashem informs Abraham that He has decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, since they are so absolutely wicked and corrupt. Abraham, in his great kindness, tries to intercede on their behalf. Despite the fact that the people in these cities are so wicked, Abraham pleads with Hashem to try to save them. “ Perhaps there are 50 righteous people in the midst of the city…; would you not forgive them in the merit of these righteous people…” (Genesis 18:24). Hashem responded, “ If I find in Sodom fifty righteous people in the midst of the city, I will not destroy it”. The commentaries explain that the condition for Hashem to forgive Sodom and not destroy it was contingent on there being these people who serve Hashem in the midst of the city – meaning in public. Why must these righteous people who protect the city be ones who serve Hashem in public? What would be wrong if they were just doing all the right things quietly at home, with no one knowing about it or realizing? More than that, the prophet Michah tells us that Hashem wants us to serve him humbly, without looking for glory and honor? (Michah 6:8) Why then would Hashem only be willing to forgive the city if there were people who served Him in public?
To understand this, we have to appreciate the whole concept of these righteous people saving Sodom. Why would the whole city be spared on their behalf?
One of the classic commentators, the Seforno, writes that the idea behind this was that when there would be a minyan of righteous people doing the right thing, there was hope that the wicked people would repent. If the merit of these righteous people is based upon their affecting the wicked people to change, it is understood that their observance of the commandments must be in public – so that it can have the desired affect upon the community around them.
There is another important point that the commentaries make here. The concept of serving Hashem in private, without fanfare, is correct in a setting where everyone else is doing the right thing and serving Hashem. In such a setting, it is considered a great thing to be humble and serve Hashem without looking for recognition and honor. In such circumstances, the only reason a person would be doing a mitzvah quietly, and avoiding the public eye, is out of sincerity. In a situation, however, that other people are not serving Hashem, and those who do so are denigrated, it is natural for even righteous people to try to hide the good deeds they do just to avoid the criticism of others. This is wrong. We are strongly instructed not to ever allow the fear or concern of what others may say out weigh the instructions or commandments of the Almighty. Therefore, in a setting where people are not doing the right thing, we must make sure to do the mitzvohs in public, in full view of others. This will hopefully set a different tone in our surroundings, ands effect the community in which we are.