The Torah Text
In Genesis 18:16-33 we find the famous scene of Abraham learning that God plans to destroy Sodom, Gomorrah, and a few other towns nearby. God will not tolerate the injustice happening within these cities, but Abraham challenges the divine decree. Is it just to wipe out a city that is wicked when it might have even a few righteous people still within it who would also perish? God admits that punishment would be inappropriate if there are fifty righteous people, then 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally 10. Abraham does not push for fewer numbers.
Ibn Ezra’s Teaching
וטעם בתוך העיר. שהם יראים את השם בפרהסיא וכן שוטטו בחוצות ירושלים
18:26 WITHIN THE CITY. That is, who publicly revere My name. And similarly, “Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now and know, and seek in the broad places if you can find a person, if there is anyone who does justice and seeks truth; and I will pardon her (i.e. Jerusalem)” (Jeremiah 5:1). (Translation adapted from Strickman and Silver)
ואף על פי שחכמינו ז”ל העתיקו שאין תפלה בצבור פחות מעשרה גם זה הפסוק יחזיק ידי אמונתינו
18:29 Now even though our sages, of blessed memory, transmitted as mere tradition the law that there can be no public prayer when fewer than ten people are present, this verse may be taken as a support of our faith in the law which they passed on to us. (Translation adapted from Strickman and Silver)
Reflections for the Path
Ibn Ezra emphasizes that “righteous” means outwardly, publicly concerned with morality and justice. A righteous person not engaged in protesting the wickedness of the city…well, as Elie Wiesel once put it, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” The kind of good person who can save the wicked from potential destruction is the same kind of good person who challenges the wicked publicly.
Ibn Ezra also notes that the minimum level of ten righteous people alludes to the Jewish tradition that we do not pray publicly without a minyan of ten.
What do we learn about prayer and justice? Both have public components, and require company.