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Parshat Lech Lecha 2017
While everyone’s attention is focused on Avram, another character unobtrusively wends his way in and out of the story, sometimes as a foil to Avram and sometimes as a catalyst for Avram’s actions. That person is of course Lot, Avram’s nephew and sidekick.
Lot is the one who goes down with Avram and Sarai to Egypt, he’s the one who decides to live in Sodom (that’s the first of only two decisions we see him take), he’s the one who is captured, which causes Avram to get involved in a local war. Next week we’ll read about his second decision, to take in the angels who come to destroy Sodom and his subsequent offer to serve up his virgin daughter to the appetites of the hordes. In some ways he’s like Woody Allen’s Zelig. There but not there.
Why is Lot here? He seems to be Avram’s sidekick and we know from literature and westerns that every hero needs his sidekick. Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza. The Lone Ranger had his Tonto. But in those cases, the sidekick was the shield bearer, the guy who did the dirty work so that the hero could get on with his important business.
But Lot is not that kind of sidekick. He seems more of a burden than a blessing, more of a “cause” that Avram undertook, to be a big brother for his nephew and keep him on the straight and narrow. But even Avram can’t because the two are so different. That’s why they split, and Lot’s choice of where to live clearly indicates his personality.
Lot is a materialist. If he lived today he’d probably be a mall-crawler, a conspicuous consumer. That’s what he did in his own terms. When Avram gave him the choice of going left or right, he chose the Jordan Valley which was green and lush with fresh water at the time. He saw it as his own Garden of Eden, he saw it as Egypt, the gold standard of luxury and of plenty. So the people of Sodom were rotten to the core. Nobody’s perfect.
But as Dr. Zvi Shimon of Bar Ilan University notes, when we look at Lot’s place in the rest of the parsha, we see almost total passivity. Avram takes him down to Egypt, and then brings him back again. The kings attack and take Sodom and all the food, and by the way they also take Lot and his family captive. When Avram gallops after the kings and goes north of Damascus to find and defeat them, he brings back all the goods of the city, and oh yes, also Lot.
When the King of Sodom offers Avram all the goods he retrieved – just leave him the people, Avram says I wouldn’t take anything from you, not even a shoelace. It’s not that Avram was fussy about taking gifts. He wasn’t. He took from Pharaoh, who had taken Sarai for his harem, and later he will take from Avimelech. But here, the repugnance he feels towards the king of Sodom overrides material rewards and indicates what a horror Sodom was.
For the king, people are important because they are his chattels. For Lot, that’s just fine. He’s happy to become a piece of property, just as he loves other pieces of property, whether portable or real estate.
When we look at Bereshit, we usually compare Avram to Noah, and we say that Noah was an easygoing guy who didn’t make much effort to help or save others, but he was better than your average Yossele.
In this parsha we can compare Avram to Lot, and the differences are like night and day. How Lot, the nephew became almost the antithesis of his uncle Avram in terms of overall behavior is not explained, nor should we be surprised. Every family has its black sheep, even Avraham’s (we can count Ishmael among them although he really wasn’t, and Esau, although he wasn’t either). This is one of the reasons that we may hypothesize that Lot is supposed to be a foil for Avram’s pro-active good deeds.
The way they are thrown together may therefore be intended to offer us a choice between types. And it is not as easy a choice as one might think. Here we have Avram, this go-getter, hot-for-God missionary who places mankind above all, sometimes even above his own family, and works incessantly to save people and make the world a better place. Then there’s Lot, laid back, materialistic, willing and able to wallow in the wonderful crassness of Sodom.
We all admire the good guy and applaud his efforts, but we realize that it’s a full-time job. Then look at Lot. It’s reasonable to assume that he did work hard because he had a lot of wealth but that work was directed to himself, and not to others. That means you don’t have to be a gung-ho goody-goody to succeed. In fact, the real surprise is that even with Avram’s concern for the world, he was a material success too.
Sometimes you pay for your decisions. Lot certainly did. He knows Sodom is going to be destroyed yet he can’t help but want to stay there, where all his wealth and happiness are. Lot ends up in a cave, away from civilization, swigging away at a bottle in the brown paper bag and being raped by his daughters.
The message is clear. It’s good to be like Avram, now Avraham, who has a supreme mission to complete that will benefit the world. Most people don’t choose the Avraham path 100 percent, or the Lot path 100 percent. We are most of us somewhere in the middle. If we can keep ourselves above the median, going towards the good, we should be OK.