One of the ambiguous characters in the book of Bereshit is Lot, Avraham’s nephew. He is taken under Avraham’s wing when Avraham’s brother Haran dies, he travels with Avraham all the way from Ur to Haran to Canaan to Egypt and back, amassing wealth along the way as does Avraham. And then, just when they are going to settle down, uncle and nephew split. We read this last week. “Let there not be a conflict between us because we are brothers,” Avraham says to Lot when their shepherds get in other’s way. “If you go north I’ll go south, if you go south I’ll go north,” Avraham continues, and so Lot decides to go east, to Sodom.
Obviously Avraham was saying wherever you decide to go, I’ll go elsewhere. But Lot’s decision is jarring nevertheless. He’s going to Sodom whose people, we are told, are very wicked. Just as there can’t be prophet in his own village, there can’t really be a tsaddik in a den of iniquity.
But we can understand him, really. They’ve been tramping the countryside for 20 years, through cold and rain, and broiling heat. They’ve been in a land where a drought make life unbearable. Isn’t it about time to settle in a place that is all green and full of water – which is how the area of Sodom is described – and you don’t have to worry about the weather?
When we see him this week, it is after God and Avraham have ended their bargaining match about how few good people are enough for God to spare a whole city.
Two of the messengers who were with Avraham come to Lot. Lot has learned something from Avraham. He almost forces them to come into his home, for their own protection. That’s the good news. On the other hand, he was ready to throw his two virgin daughters out to the crowd around his house, without hesitation and without his being in danger. The fact that they were saved is not thanks to Lot but rather to the sexual orientation of the crowd.
And he makes them a meal. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun cites Rashi, who simply calls the meal Lot’s Pesach seder! This seems like an odd comparison, considering that the Israelites have not yet been born, have not been subjugated and have not been redeemed. But let’s look more closely. Lot and his guests are in a home that is locked down tight. Angels (the guests) man the door and save those in the home from harm, and then lead them out. Lot says to his sons in law: Get out of here because God is destroying the city.
In Egypt we have closed houses, an angel protecting the entrance (with blood on the doorposts and lintel) who “will not allow the destroyer to enter your homes”. And the final touch, says Bin-Nun is in the word vayitmahamea – and Lot tarried, he dawdled. In the Exodus story we read that the Israelites “could not tarry, dawdle”.
The next day Lot and wife and two daughters are led out of Sodom – a miraculous redemption – and a great plague is brought down on Sodom. Sounds familiar. The only thing that’s missing from the story is the Pascal lamb. Everything else is there.
So like the Israelites hundreds of years later, Lot is saved from the conflagration. The parallel stops there but we are not finished with Lot. He hides out, alone with his family, in the city of Zo’ar, afraid to be in the vicinity of other people who may bring down the wrath of God on him too, and there his two daughters, who fear that no man will ever come to set up families with them, get their father drunk, sleep with him and beget two nations – Ammon and Moav, two mortal enemies of the Israelites.
But here’s the catch. When we follow the stories in the Bible we come across a family that goes from Bethlehem to Moav where the husband and two sons die. The widowed wife returns with her daughter-in-law Ruth, who marries Boaz. And a few generations later a son is born named David who becomes the most famous of the kings of Israel and the one of the beloved figures in all the Bible.
From degradation and incest comes one of the prominent figures in the Bible. Is this pure irony or is there a lesson hidden somewhere here?
Perhaps one lesson is to have a bit of humility, to acknowledge that we have no idea what will happen. The best of parents can have the worst of kids, and vice versa. A period of life, whether on the personal or communal level, can seem blacker than black but it then leads to great light, or it can be filled with light that is just waiting to be extinguished. We never know.
This raises a philosophical problem. If we know what is right and what is wrong, and we don’t act against what we perceive to be wrong because that wrong may lead to some good in the future – aren’t we being untrue to ourselves and also endangering our future?
Obviously we have to act according to our values and assessments at the time. We must do what we think is right at the moment, to gain the most beneficial results for us personally and communally. At the same time, we must remember that other options exist, and that everything we know and believe today may be confounded tomorrow.