Maybe, he said to God, there are 50 righteous people there, and for their merit the city deserves to survive?
Maybe there are a few less than 50, but still enough to keep the city from destruction?
In the end the negotiations did not work, and Sodom went under. But there are interesting features about Abraham’s argument, in particular in Genesis 18:24.
In speaking of the possible righteous people of Sodom, Abraham uses the word tzaddikim, the word we would expect – but with a difference: one yod is missing from the text.
Does this mean that there might be something lacking in the righteousness of these tzaddikim?
Presumably yes, and Abraham is arguing that even if the tzaddikim are not perfect, they still deserve to be rewarded.
It is true that according to T’nach no tzaddik is ever perfect, for “There is no righteous person on earth who is completely righteous and never sins” (Eccl. 7:20), but in Sodom righteousness must have been especially difficult, and what mattered there was how much one tried to be a tzaddik when it meant fighting against the environment and one’s own limitations.
A second feature of the verse is Abraham’s reference to where any possible tzaddik was to be found.
He says, “If there are 50 righteous people in the city” – in the city, not in the synagogues and houses of study (if indeed there were any in Sodom).
In the synagogue or bet midrash it is easier to be a tzaddik, but the real test is b’toch ha’ir, “in the midst of the city”.
If a person can be a tzaddik at work, in the street, wherever they deal with people, when all the temptations are to take the line of least resistance and adopt the grey morality of most other people – that’s the sign of success.
Abraham knew where to look for his tzaddikim, and it was such a pity that there were so few of them there.