When Abraham (who, according to the Kabbalah, is the personification of the highest human quality: Loving-Kindness) learned of the impending destruction of Sodom,, he beseeched the Lord to be merciful, and to spare the city, since surely not every single resident was a sinner. He asked God if He would be willing to spare Sodom if He found fifty righteous souls therein. The Lord answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Feeling emboldened, Abraham then asked what would happen if He only found forty-five. Again the Lord said He would spare the city. Abraham then continued his questions: What about forty? thirty? twenty? Each time, the Lord agreed to spare the city. Then Abraham said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” Again the Lord agreed. But that was it, and Abraham went no further.
Why did Abraham stop at ten? Why not one? ‘Ten’ is certainly an interesting number. Pythagoras called it the Perfect Number, the Number of Man. Abraham may have been aware that God would one day reveal Ten Commandments to the children of Israel, and perhaps he felt there should be a minimum of at least one person keeping each commandment if Sodom was to be saved. Some legends suggest that Abraham recalled that Noah had eight righteous souls in his family, and since these eight had not been sufficient for God to spare that whole generation there was no need now to continue this conversation. Or perhaps, as some legends suggest, he simply felt confident that his nephew Lot, along with his wife, four daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, would more than total ten righteous souls.
But more than likely the story simply means that, while a certain degree of negativity and evil can be tolerated, forgiven, and eventually redeemed, there comes a point where it is simply too extreme and too dangerous, and has to be annihilated.
Abraham, of course, made no claim to be the enforcer of this code: his role was solely to plead for Mercy – a good reminder for many contemporary people who feel called upon to personally judge and punish their particular choice of ‘sinners’. After all, the people in this story – including the horrible citizens of Sodom – are all symbols of qualities living inside us. They do not represent some ‘other’ person. This entire story is taking place right now within the confines of every human soul. The real meaning of the story is that the negativity and evil that has to be ‘annihilated’ is our own.