In Parashas VaYeira, the Almighty asks Avraham’s opinion about whether or not He should destroy the city of Sodom.
We all know the famous back-and-forth. Avraham asks the Almighty whether He will spare Sodom if there are fifty righteous people in the city. How about forty-five? Twenty? Even just ten?
We grow up admiring Avraham’s fight for human rights, but it gets a little confusing when you learn about the other side of the story. There was a good reason why the Almighty considered destroying Sodom.
Take this example:
Lot’s daughter was married to one of the leading men of Sodom. Once she saw a poor man on a city street and felt bad for him. What would she do? Each day when she would go out to draw water, she would fill her jug with all the foods of her house and provide for the poor man.
The people of Sodom asked, ‘From what is he surviving?,’ until they knew of the matter. What did they do? They would coat her in honey and the bees stung her until she died.
(Talmud Sanhedrin 109b)
Execution by torture? Sodom wasn’t an anarchic society of self-centered hippies, it was a well-oiled machine of real evil. In Sodom, caring for the needy was a crime punishable by death. These people were sociopaths.
Why did Avraham try to buy more time for such low-lives?
“I Was Just Following Orders”
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Sodom was that they were so organized. Kind of like Nazi Germany. The Holocaust wasn’t the same thing as, say, the pogroms. The pogroms were wild. In Germany, just as in Sodom, they killed people with method.
Yet when Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann stood accused of the murder of millions at his April 1961 trial in Jerusalem, his statement of defense rang out around the world: “I was just following orders.” Really? In July of that year, a Yale University psychologist by the name of Stanley Milgram set out to discover how far “just following orders” could take the common man.
Milgram’s experiment tested to see how many severe electric shocks your average American would administer to an innocent person behind a wall when ordered to do so by an authority figure. How did he test this?
If you had signed up to assist in the experiment, falsely advertised as a study on memory, you would have been taken into a room with two other people. Next to you would have sat the scientist running the experiment. You and the third person would have drawn slips of paper to find out who would serve as the “teacher” and who would serve as the “student. (You would not have known that both slips of paper said “teacher”, ensuring that you were always set up as the “teacher” in the experiment.)
Then the “student” would have left the room to take a seat behind a wall. The scientist would tell you that your job was to administer electric shocks to the person seated behind the wall whenever that person made a mistake in repeating back word pairs that you read to them.
As the “student” made more and more mistakes, you would have been told to administer higher and higher voltage electric shocks. As this person behind the wall began to cry, scream, and bang on the wall in pain, the researcher running the experiment would have told you that “the experiment requires that you continue”. If you continued to protest as the screams got more and more desperate, the researcher would have told you that “it is absolutely essential that you continue”.
How far do you think most people went? The academic world was disturbed to find that 65% of experiment participants administered the experiment's final massive 450-volt shock. Furthermore, Dr. Thomas Blass of the University of Maryland performed a meta-analysis on the results of repeated performances of the experiment to find that the percentage of participants who are prepared to inflict fatal voltages remains at a constant 61 to 66 percent, regardless of time or place.
Welcome to Sodom.
Harnessing the “Herd Mentality”
Sadly, Milgram’s experiment proved that Eichmann was right: “Just following orders” can take people almost anywhere. Yet that was Avraham’s entire point.
If only even just ten men could be found to lead the community in the right direction, Sodom would have had a fighting chance. The citizens of Sodom weren’t wild people, they just suffered from a severe case of “herd mentality”. Whatever the authorities said to do was what everyone did, no questions asked: “I was just following orders.”
Were they accountable for their passive obedience in the face of evil? Absolutely. Eichmann the murderer was hanged. Sodom was destroyed. However, as the Almighty promised Avraham, if ten men had been found to lead Sodom in the right direction, He would not have had to.
The lesson for us is that we must stand up and be counted. Sodom isn’t all that different than the twenty-first century but this time we can turn the ship around. Instead of passively allowing society to destroy itself, make yourself into one of the ten righteous men. Don’t be a mindless follower, be a leader.
Because, after all, most people did not think that Milgram’s crazy experiment would prove what it did. We think people are very independent, but “herd mentality” is stronger than we realize. When we take an active leadership role in our Judaism, our influence makes a bigger difference than we even dare to dream. Look at just one man – Hitler. Look at just one man - Avraham. Look at just one person - yourself.
by Braha Bender