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Lot – The Lapsed Idealist

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Lot’s merit

Let us begin by examining a verse that appears in next week’s parasha, Vayera:

“And it was, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Avraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelled.” (Bereishit 19:29)

The plain meaning of the text indicates that Lot was saved solely because of Avraham, rather than in his own merit. Indeed, Radak comments:

“‘And it was, when [God] destroyed…’ – This comes after the Torah records [that Avraham] ‘went early in the morning [to the place where he had stood before the Lord], and he looked towards [Sedom and Amora…]’ (19:27), to tell us that it was in Avraham’s merit that God saved Lot. For although he was righteous, he was not so righteous as to be saved by his own merit, had it not been for the merit of Avraham.”

Rashi, however, proposes a different reason for Lot’s salvation:

“‘God remembered Avraham’ – what was this ‘remembering of Avraham’ with regard to Lot? God remembered that Lot had known that Sara was Avraham’s wife, and he had heard Avraham saying, in Egypt, concerning Sara, ‘She is my wife’ (12:19), and had not revealed the matter, for he was merciful towards him; therefore God was merciful towards Lot, too.”

In Rashi’s view, the mention of Avraham comes merely to allude to Lot’s own good deed.

Ramban, too, maintains that Lot had his own merits:

“‘God remembered Avraham, and sent Lot out’ – What this verse comes to tell us is that Lot had performed a kindness towards this righteous man by joining him in roaming the land, wherever he would go, and this is as it is written (12:4), ‘And Lot went with him’ – for he went to be part of [Avraham’s] company, and therefore he had the merit of being saved, by virtue of Avraham, for it was on [Avraham’s] account that he lived in Sedom. Had it not been for Avraham, Lot would still have been living in Charan, in his homeland, and it is inconceivable that any evil should befall him on account of Avraham, who had left at God’s command.”

What is Lot’s merit, according to Ramban? His readiness to accompany Avraham, to be part of his “company.” Lot could not be harmed as a result of Avraham having fulfilled God’s command.

“Roaming the land, wherever he would go”

Let us now return to our parasha. Lot accompanies Avraham from the very start of his journey. Lot is an orphan – the son of Haran – whom Avraham brings into his home at a young age. This child grows up in a home that has a sense of mission, and he joins the journey to realize its vision. Wherever Avraham and Lot go, they spread knowledge of God and faith in His Oneness.

This is active “going” – “And Lot went with him.” Avraham’s dreams are Lot’s dreams, and together they set out to realize them. Lot, at this stage, is an idealistic youth who is ready to follow Avraham anywhere and everywhere, and to sacrifice his own comforts and desires for the sake of bringing Avraham’s vision to fruition. He is a highly motivated, active partner in the idealistic movement that Avraham leads, and he wants to continue in this fantastic venture in partnership with Avraham and Sara: “the souls which they had made in Charan.”

This joint purpose reaches its climax in Avraham’s statement, “We are brethren” (Bereishit 13:8) – partners sharing the same dream. Commenting on this verse, Chazal teach:

“Was Lot then Avraham’s brother? [Obviously not; rather,] this teaches that his facial features were similar to his.”

The deeper meaning of this teaching is that they shared a vision.

But if Lot actually possessed such impressive moral qualities, we must ask what caused his drastic decline, culminating in the tragic conclusion recorded in our parasha. Where was the turning point, and what caused it?

“For their substance was great, so that they could not dwell together”

Beneath the surface, we see changes. The fortune that they had made in Egypt becomes a consideration in their relationship:

“And also Lot, who went with Avram, had flocks and herds and tents. And the land was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together, for their substance was great, so that they could not dwell together.” (Bereishit 13:5-6)

Lot starts to think about his economic status. Chazal, in a midrash on this verse, expose the real reason Avraham seeks to separate from Lot’s herdsmen:

“‘And there was strife between the herdsmen of Avram’s cattle and the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle’ – R. Berakhia taught in the name of R. Yehuda, son of R. Simon: Avraham’s cattle would go out muzzled, while Lot’s cattle would not go out muzzled.” (Bereishit Rabba 41:5)

Of course, Lot is no thief, but his herdsmen wander about with cattle that are not muzzled. The midrash even explains the logic behind this behavior:

“Avraham’s herdsmen would say to them, ‘Is theft then permitted?!’ And Lot’s herdsmen would answer, ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, told Avraham, “To your seed shall I give this land.” But Avraham is childless; sometime he will die, and Lot, his nephew, will inherit him – so the cattle are actually eating from what will eventually become his in any case.’” (ibid.)

The moment that wealth becomes a parameter, when money becomes the function of how a person is judged, then even the righteous Avraham is viewed in terms of financial gain: he becomes the bequeather of a future inheritance.

Avraham tries to remind Lot of earlier times, chiding him, “We are brethren! Come back to what you used to be!” But Lot has already “journeyed east,” as the midrash explains:

“‘And Lot journeyed east [va-yisa… mi-kedem]’ – [alluding to the fact that] he distanced himself from the Creator [mi-kadmono shel olam], declaring, [as it were,] ‘I have no wish [to be part of] Avraham or of his God.’” (Bereishit Rabba 41:7)

Lot’s idealism has begun to wane, and now his path parts from that of Avraham. Lot loses his idealism in the wake of his encounter with significant economic wealth. Avraham regards his riches as a means, but for Lot they are an end in themselves.

Lot does not choose Sedom as his new neighborhood because it is a place of Torah, or because he seeks to bring its inhabitants closer to God. He heads for Sedom because of the comparison that arises in his head:

“Lot lifted his eyes and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before the Lord destroyed Sedom and Amora, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as you come to Tzo’ar.” (Bereishit 13:10)

Sedom reminds Lot of “green pastures abroad” – of Egypt. Sedom has good economic potential because it is “well watered everywhere.”

In a similar vein, we find that the tribes of Reuven and Gad placed greater importance on their cattle and the good pasture on the eastern side of the Jordan than they did on the ideal of the sanctity of the land on the western side, as is clear from the midrash:

“‘A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right’ (Kohelet 1:2) – this refer to Moshe, ‘but a fool’s heart to his left’ – these are the tribes of Reuven and Gad, who made the most important thing trivial, and made a trivial thing important. They loved their wealth more than their own families, for they said to Moshe, ‘We shall build sheepfolds for our cattle here, and cities for our children.’ Moshe said to them, ‘Put first things first: first build yourselves cities for your children, and only afterwards sheepfolds for your herds.’ Thus, ‘a wise man’s heart inclines him to the right’ – this refers to Moshe, while ‘a fool’s heart to his left’ – these are the tribes of Reuven and Gad.” (Bamidbar Rabba 22:9)

Indeed, Moshe rebukes these tribes for their warped priorities, and ultimately they accept the ideal of helping to conquer the land, promising to lead the rest of the nation into battle:

“And the children of Gad and the children of Reuven spoke to Moshe, saying, Your servants will do as my lord commands. Our little ones, our wives, our flocks and all our cattle, shall be there in the cities of Gil’ad, but your servants will pass over, every man armed for war, before the Lord to battle, as my lord says.” (Bamidbar 32:25-27)

With this instance in mind, we can better understand Lot’s decline to the point where he yields to the wicked inhabitants of his city, as the text records:

“But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sedom, encompassed the house round about, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, and they called to Lot and said to him: Where are they men who came into you this night? Bring them out to us, that we may know them. And Lot went out at the door to them, and shut the door after him, and said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out to you, and do to them as it pleases you, only to these men do nothing, seeing that they have come under the shadow of my roof.” (Bereishit 19:4-8)

What is Lot’s justification for protecting his visitors? “They have come under the shadow of my roof.” He is ready to hand over his daughters to the whim of the perverted crowd, so long as his good name and honor as a hospitable host will not be tarnished. This is surely one of the most shocking verses in all of the Torah.

Money – a means or an end

This materialistic world-view did not start with Lot; it was the prevailing social environment in Sedom. The same reduction of “values” to “economic value” is expressed by the king of Sedom in his words to Avraham: “Give me the souls, and take the spoils for yourself” (Bereishit 14:23). From the king’s point of view, this is a very generous offer to Avraham; he is certain that Avraham fought for the sake of the material benefit. He – the king – asks only for the living, who have no value; he leaves the spoils to the victorious Avraham.

But Avraham refuses the deal. He has saved the people not out of a desire for wealth, but rather as an act of kindness. The king of Sedom is incapable of understanding this. In a completely different context, Achashverosh, too, is unable to understand such a motive, and wonders how it is possible that “nothing at all was done” to Mordekhai following his exposure of the plot against the king – for surely Mordekhai would have demanded the reward that he certainly deserved!

In its discussion of dreams, the Gemara expresses the proper attitude towards the material world in the following way

“Our Sages taught: There are five sayings in connection with an ox in a dream… If [he dreamed that] he rode upon one, he will rise to greatness. But it has been taught, ‘If [he dreamed that] he rode upon it – he will die!’ But there is no contradiction here, for in one case the dream is that he rides upon the ox; in the other case, the ox rides upon him.” (Berakhot 56b)

When a person “rides upon an ox”, when his wealth is merely a means, he achieves greatness. But if he labors under the ox, if wealth becomes his rider, then he is destined to die.

It is told of the Chafetz Chaim that he was once asked why the request for “fear of heaven” is repeated twice in the blessing of the new moon. He explained that in between the two utterances we ask for “a life of wealth and honor.” When a person achieves wealth, he must examine himself to be certain that he also has fear of heaven, for wealth is a most difficult test.

Remaining “forever young”

In fact, the challenge of living a comfortable, bourgeois life while remaining young and energetic in spirit is one of the biggest challenges that face a person – and not only in the economic context. Avraham’s greatness lay in his ability to remain a dreamer and visionary even in his old age.

It was said, in the eulogy for a certain Rosh Yeshiva, that he had been “an eighty-year old yeshiva bochur.” He never rested on his laurels, never stopped dreaming and advancing. One of the great challenges in life is the atrophy that often accompanies progress in the life-cycle. As a person grows older he has fewer dreams, he becomes more set in his thinking and heavy in his movements; he takes in the scenery sitting on a tour bus instead of walking; he starts to avoid activities that require physical effort; he no longer dances on Simchat Torah the way he once did; he also feels less fiery enthusiasm in his avodat Hashem. The great challenge is to overcome all of this.

The above applies not only to the individual, but also to the collective. Israeli society is young, and is still contending with many issues. The early years were characterized by very significant economic and security issues, but with time we have achieved greater comfort. Although the challenges still exist, the situation is easier. Now the question is whether Israeli society will use its wealth, time and resources to deal with the challenges that remain, or choose, heaven forfend, to abandon its ideals and efforts and become complacent.

Lot, the lapsed idealist, is a warning sign. From an energetic youth who shared Avraham’s dreams, he degenerated to the point where he was ready to hand over his own daughters – anything to save his own prestige. Lot’s degeneration came when he achieved great wealth and this wealth became an ideal. But the danger itself exists at many different times, and as religious Jews we dare not assume that we are less at risk. The materialist pull acts on us, too, and it is important to remember one of the most important verses in the haftara:

“Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Yeshayahu 40:31)

This brings us back to the start of our discussion. Many figures in Sefer Bereishit have both positive and negative characteristics that are emphasized by Chazal, and Lot is one of them. Some explain that Lot preserves something of his youthful energy, and this is expressed in his willingness to host guests even in a place that is known for its inhospitable policies. As a reward for this willingness he is saved. However, there are other Sages who cast him in a strongly negative light, such that his salvation comes about purely by the merit of Avraham. He is saved – but he ends his life bereft of his wealth and honor, in a state of drunkenness, alone in a cave, following a tragic episode of incest and moral corruption.

(This sicha was given on leil Shabbat parashat Lekh Lekha 5775 [2014].)