What makes a person righteous? In this week’s parashah, Parshat Vayera, we are given some clue. When God threatens to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham objects, asking, “Will you actually wipe out the innocent together with the guilty?” (Genesis 18:23) Abraham successfully advocates for the sparing of the cities based on only ten righteous people, tzaddikim. Although they are not to be found, our text can teach us about the essential qualities of the truly righteous, those people whose merit would spare two corrupt cities. Rabbi Hirsch’s 1948 Commentary on the Torah focuses on the phrase b’toch ha-ir, “in the midst of the city.” This is where a righteous person is to be found—in the midst of suffering. A righteous person is not someone who ignores the suffering of those around him or her and only is concerned with saving his or her own household. Rather, a righteous person is someone who lives in the midst of suffering and maintains his or her goodness, specifically by caring for others and striving on their behalf.
In the morning service, we sing Elu Devarim, those deeds that have no limits. Among them is “engaging in deeds of compassion.” Kindness has no limits; it extends to everyone and everything. A righteous person is not only kind to those closest to him or her, but also concerned with others in the community, b’toch ha-ir. The righteous do not act as individuals. In our parashah the minimum is ten, and Abraham always refers to righteous people in the plural. Those ten people would have needed to work collaboratively to save their cities. They needed to engage with each other and with the larger community in order to create change.
I witness the work of righteous tzaddikim as a TJF Fellow at Cedar Village, a retirement and assisted living community in Cincinnati. I have spent the last several weeks of the semester seeing patients and working with the hospice staff in the role of a Jewish chaplain. The ten nurses, doctors, and health care professionals who make up the hospice team exemplify the Jewish idea of righteousness. They come to work each morning and spend their time with people who are dying and their grieving families. They work to make those who are gravely ill comfortable and calm in their final days or weeks. Recently, I was sitting with a woman who was dying and her son. A hospice aide was there as well, and as I spoke to the son about what he was going through and how he was feeling, I saw the aide take the hand of the woman and say softly “You are safe. You are okay. It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. You are safe.” The hospice team knows that they will not succeed in curing anyone of his or her disease, they know that they will not prevent anyone from dying, and yet they work their hardest to provide support, comfort, and compassion to every patient who comes to Cedar Village. They work together to utilize all of their strengths in order to provide the best care. The hospice team is truly b’toch ha-ir; they reach beyond their roles as nurse, doctor and administrator to become counselors, confidantes, and caregivers.
What is redeeming about the righteous who live in the middle of the city? I believe it is the contagious nature of their deeds. By spending time with the hospice team at Cedar Village, I have cultivated a passion for hospice work and for chaplaincy in a long term care setting. Abraham protests against destroying the innocent along with the guilty not because of this act’s injustice, but because a community of righteous people concerned with the welfare of others have the power to truly transform those with whom they live. I know this first hand from my work at Cedar Village.
Rebecca Kamil is a fourth year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College doing her fellowship at Cedar Village.