Much is made of Abraham’s valiant efforts to save the wicked city of Sodom. We read how Abraham virtually went to battle with G‑d on behalf of these very sinful people, contesting the divine decree that Sodom (and its four sister cities, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Zoar) be destroyed. “It behooves You not to do such,” Abraham challenged, “to kill the righteous together with the wicked . . . Shall the Judge of the entire world not do justice?!” “If there be found fifty righteous people in the city,” Abraham bargained, “would You not spare the place because of the fifty righteous ones who are in it?” “What if there be five less than fifty?” Abraham persisted. “What if there be forty? . . . Thirty?”

But something about the story doesn’t add up. Why should the wicked people be spared “because of the righteous”? If there are some righteous people left in Sodom, G‑d obviously doesn’t have to “kill the righteous together with the wicked”—He can airlift them outta there before He wrecks the place. Indeed, G‑d sent two angels to rescue Lot and his family, the only righteous people in Sodom, before overturning the city. So where’s the injustice? What’s the logic in Abraham’s argument?

Also: every good salesman has more than one pitch up his sleeve; when one line of reasoning fails to elicit the desired response, the seasoned marketer will quickly shift to another tack. Yet Abraham (a pretty good salesman, actually) seems to have only this one argument to make. When it turns out that there’s not even ten righteous folk in any of the cities, Abraham drops the case.

One of the explanations offered by the commentaries is that as long as there are righteous people in a place, there remains the possibility and hope that they will have a positive influence on their community. So it makes sense to spare the entire city because of the righteous people in it—it’s not a lost cause yet. When Abraham learns, however, that there are no righteous people remaining in Sodom (or not enough righteous people to make a difference), he has nothing further to say on their behalf.

This suggests a deeper meaning to Abraham’s argument. When Abraham says to G‑d, “Do not destroy the city because of the righteous who are in it,” he’s not just speaking about Sodom as a city, but also about its individual sinners. The chassidic masters refer to the human being as a “city in miniature”: each of us is a virtual metropolis populated by numerous organs and limbs, traits and faculties, drives and desires, thoughts and actions. Even a thoroughly wicked “city” is bound to have a few righteous “inhabitants”—a few remaining enclaves of purity, a few pinpoints of goodness. To destroy a person—even a most wicked person—is also to destroy the latent tzaddik within him, to reject not only his negative actuality but also his positive potential.

The question, however, is: does there remain enough potential goodness to exert a positive influence on the “city” and perhaps effect a transformation? If this were the case, it would indeed be a grave injustice, unbehooving the Judge of the entire world, to “kill the righteous together with the wicked.” But what if we are dealing with a “lost cause”? What if we have before us a person or community in which the “tzaddik within” is so completely overwhelmed that one can see no possibility of it ever asserting itself? When there is no salvageable goodness remaining in the person, what can be said to protest the Divine decree?

Abraham, who in the course of his lifetime had converted many thousands to the ethos and morals of monotheism, was quite the expert at identifying and activating the “hidden tzaddik” in the most corrupt environments. But when confronted with an evil as impregnable as Sodom’s, even Abraham fell silent.

But Moses did not.

Four hundred years after Abraham approached G‑d to plead on behalf of the wicked of Sodom, Moses had a “lost cause scenario” of his own on his hands, when the Children of Israel sinned by worshipping a Golden Calf. What can be said in defense of a people who succumb to idolatry a mere forty days after experiencing the greatest Divine revelation of all time—a revelation bearing the message “I am the L‑rd your G‑d . . . you shall have no other gods before Me”?

The Divine anger seethed. Like his great-great-great-great-grandfather before him, Moses stepped in to stave off a decree of annihilation.

But Moses took a different approach. He didn’t say, “But there are many who didn’t sin.” He didn’t say, “Spare the wicked because of the righteous,” or “spare the wicked because of the potential for righteousness within them.” Instead he said: “Forgive them, G‑d. If you won’t, blot me out of your Torah.”

Moses demanded an unconditional forgiveness, a forgiveness without a “because.” If you are a G‑d who forgives without cause, Moses said, I’m prepared to be part of your Story. If not, edit me out; I’ll have no part in it.

Abraham was a great lover of humanity. He loved his fellow man because he saw the potential for goodness in him or her, even when the rest of the person didn’t look that great. But Moses’ love was greater: Moses loved his people regardless of whether he could or could not discern the hidden tzaddik in their city.

And the amazing thing was, in the end Moses did turn his errant people around. In the end, their supposedly irredeemable potential came to glorious light.

For such is the paradox of love. If you care for someone because you see in him a potential for improvement and wish to have a positive influence on him, that’s really great of you, but there will be times when you’ll find that potential inaccessible and your positive influence rebuffed. But if you care for him irrespective of whether you can see anything good in him, and regardless of whether you can reasonably hope to influence him in any way—if you love him even if he is a “lost cause”—then you will end up having a profound influence on his life.