The Torah in Parashat Vayera tells of the three angels who visited Avraham in Chevron, and then traveled eastward to Sedom, where they rescued Lot and his family before destroying the city and the surrounding towns. The angels’ departure from Avraham’s company is described with the words, “Va-yifnu mi-sham ha-anashim va-yeilkhu Sedoma” – “The men turned away from there and went to Sedom” (18:22).
Rav Yitzchak Menachem Abrahamson, in his Be’er Mayim, finds it significant that the angels are said to have “turned away” from Avraham and his home before proceeding to Sedom. In order to properly fulfill their mission, Rav Abrahamson explains, the angels needed to first divert their attention completely from Avraham and forget everything they experienced in his home. The reason emerges from Rashi’s comment (19:1) that these angels were “malakhei rachamim” – angels of compassion – who did not actually want to overturn Sedom. To the contrary, their plan was to stall, give Avraham a chance to pray on the city’s behalf, and save the city and its inhabitants. In the end, of course, God determined that the people of Sedom were unworthy of being saved even after Avraham’s plea, and the angels were indeed compelled to annihilate Sedom, but their plan as they made their way to Sedom was to save it, not destroy it. And this, Rav Abrahamson explains, is why they needed to “turn away” from Avraham. In order for them to plead for the city and try to save it, they needed to forget the exceptional standards set by Avraham. If they approached the city with the image of Avraham’s generous hospitality still fresh in their minds, it would be very difficult for them to feel concern and petition God to spare Sedom. It was necessary for them to “turn away” from Avraham, to divert their attention completely from Avraham’s extraordinary selflessness and generosity, and view Sedom through an objective, impartial lens.
This insight reminds us of the need to evaluate people on their own merits and in consideration of their individual circumstances, without comparing them to anybody else. Just as the angels were to try to look favorably upon the wicked city of Sedom, we need to try, to whatever extent is possible, to view others favorably despite their faults and shortcomings. And this effort requires – among other things – that we avoid harboring unreasonable expectations. The people of Sedom did not have to meet Avraham’s standards in order to be deemed worthy of divine compassion. Unfortunately, they failed to meet even the most minimum standards and were thus condemned. But the angels’ attempt to “turn away” from Avraham and find some good in Sedom serves as an instructive model for us of how we are to set reasonable expectations for the people around us so we can view them positively.