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Lech Lecha 5764-2003

“A Scriptural Assessment of Lot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

By paying close attention to specific words and verses in the Bible, we can often learn much concerning the Bible’s assessment of a particular biblical personality. Much can be revealed about a person’s character by comparing that person’s behavior to the behavior of others in similar situations. For example: the manner in which they welcome guests, their reaction upon learning about the impending destruction of the city of Sodom, the respect they show or fail to show to other people’s property. At times there are subtle textual hints, such as a minor change in the wording or change in the syntax of a verse. Often, by studying the writings of the biblical commentators, who were inordinately sensitive to textual nuances, we can more correctly ascertain the Torah’s evaluation of a particular personality.

Such an analysis of the persona of Lot is to be found in a wonderful school guidebook entitled Shabbat B’Shabbato edited by Avraham Shtall.

The initial scriptural encounter with Lot takes place at the conclusion of last week’s parasha, parashat Noah (Genesis 11:31). We learn there that Terach takes his son, Abram (his name has not yet been changed to Abraham), and his grandson, Lot, the son of Haran, and Sarai, Terach’s daughter-in-law (Abram’s wife), and departs Ur Kasdim to journey to the land of Canaan. The rabbis perceive the absence of Haran, Abram’s brother, in the verse, and conclude that Lot was an orphan, whose father Haran had been killed when he was cast into a fiery furnace by King Amraphel in a test of faith. The fact that Lot was orphaned at such a young age may account for Lot’s apparent vulnerability, and perhaps explain why throughout his life, Lot seems to be easily influenced by his environment.

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech L’chah, we once again encounter Lot just as Abram leaves Charan to journey to Canaan (Genesis 12:4), “Va’yay’lech ee’toh Lot.” In fact, the verse mentions Lot even before Sarai. However, as they leave Charan, scripture notes a readjusted order and informs us that Abram first takes Sarai and only then takes Lot his nephew, and all their property, and everything that they had made in Charan.

Soon after Abram’s arrival in Canaan, a famine forces him to seek food in Egypt. A famous encounter takes place there between Pharaoh and Sarai. Strangely, there is no mention of Lot. Perhaps Lot was too young and too insignificant to be mentioned. Yet we know that Lot surely went down to Egypt, because when Abram and Sarai leave Egypt (Genesis 13:1) Lot is mentioned! Significantly, upon departure, Lot is mentioned only after Abram’s property is listed. Perhaps in order to underscore how wealthy Abram had become in Egypt, Lot is mentioned after the property, but more likely, the reason for the delay in mentioning Lot’s name is due to the fact that Lot has become more distant, perhaps more independent, as they travel up toward the Negev. Scripture in fact tells us (Genesis 13:5) that upon leaving Egypt Lot has also become wealthy. In fact, Lot is so wealthy that the land could not support both Abram and Lot, and a quarrel breaks out between the shepherds of Abram and Lot’s shepherds.

The rabbis speculate about the nature of the quarrel. The Midrash suggests that the quarrel was over the fact that Lot’s shepherds would regularly graze their cattle on the fields of the Canaanites without muzzling them. Lot’s shepherds rationalize these actions by reasoning that G-d had promised the entire land of Canaan to Abram, and since Abram had no children, Lot would be his sole heir. Abram’s shepherds claim, however, that because the Canaanites and the Pereezites still dwell in the land (Genesis 13:7) the land still belongs to them and had not yet been given over to Abram. Therefore, Lot’s shepherds had no right to graze their cattle on stolen land.

Attempting to deal with Lot and his wealth in a peaceful manner, Abram says to Lot: (Genesis 13:8-9) “Please let there be no strife between me and you, between my herdsmen and your herdsmen for we are kinsmen. Is not all the land before you? Please separate from me. If you go to the left, I will go to the right, if you go to the right I will go to the left.” Lot does not appear to respond. The Torah records only that Lot lifts up his eyes and sees the entire lush plain of the Jordan. Upon beholding this fertile land Lot chooses for himself the land of the Jordan valley, and Abram and Lot part one from another. In taking leave from Abram, Lot accords no respect to the old patriarch, who was already 75 years old when he left Charan. In fact, Lot appears to act quite indifferently toward the man who has acted as his surrogate father all these years, and the person who was responsible for Lot’s great wealth.

In this encounter we learn that blatant materialism plays a defining role in Lot’s life choices. (Genesis 13:10) “Va’yee’sah Lot et ay’nahv, va’yar et kol kee’kar ha’Yar’dayn kee choo’lah mash’keh,” And Lot raised his eyes and saw the entire plain of Jordan that it was well watered. Despite the fact that Lot probably knows that the people of Sodom are the most sinful people on the face of the earth, Lot is smitten by the economic opportunity and pays no heed to the ethical compromises he will have make if he chooses to live among these wretched people.

Scripture also points out the differences between Abram and Lot with respect to the way they welcome guests. Abram (Genesis 18:1) is thoroughly involved with his guests–his entire family actively serves them. He promises the guests little, then brings them a massive repast. And all this despite the fact that he’s still recovering from his painful adult circumcision.

Lot, in Sodom, welcomes his guests with a half-hearted invitation (Genesis 19:2), “Soo’roo,” turn aside. Despite his reluctance to have them join him, Lot persists, because of what he had learnt from Abram. Lot might be a bad guy, but he is not totally wicked.

More of Lot’s true colors emerge with his ghastly ethical lapses when Lot suggests (Genesis 19:8) to the people of Sodom who seek to attack him and his guests that they instead take his two daughters. Most balanced parents would give up their lives for the sake of their daughters’ or wife’s lives, but Lot is plainly prepared to throw his daughters to the wolves.

Lot is reluctant to leave Sodom (Genesis 19:16), to abandon his split-level home, his two car garage, and his many audio and video toys. With the angels pulling him by the hand, Lot eventually escapes the destruction of Sodom.

Lot flees from Sodom in an apparently physically and emotionally weakened condition. Unable to run very far, he begs G-d (Genesis 19:19-20) for the right to flee to a local little city and is granted his wish. Lot allows his daughters to get him drunk and has relations with them in order to perpetuate the human race, which they thought had come to an end.

All in all, the biblical portrait of Lot is not a very redeeming picture, but there does seem to be reason for at least some sympathy. After all, Lot was orphaned at an early age. He spent a good part of his childhood relocating from one land to another: starting in Ur Kasdim, then to Charan, followed by Canaan, Egypt, and Sodom. Major journeys such as these can easily throw a person’s equilibrium off balance. Lot, who probably never felt rooted, was obviously easily influenced, at times for good–as when he welcomed guests into his home–but most often for bad, being strongly attracted to wealth and material possessions.

In essence, Lot is very much the world’s “everyman,” neither very good, nor very bad. On the one hand, the nations of Amon and Moav–nations totally devoid of gratitude stem from Lot. On the other hand, Ruth the Moabite, the paradigm of chessed and loving-kindness is also his progeny.

In the final analysis, the Torah essentially fails to give us a definitive portrait of Lot. Perhaps it really can’t, because Lot is a person of so many colors and dimensions. Lot, in a sense, is there to serve as a model for all mortals, to learn from his good deeds and from his shortcomings, and to derive essential life lessons from both these factors. After all, that is really what life is all about.

May you be blessed.