Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, Shabbat 18th Cheshvan 5777, 19th November 2016
One character in the early stories of Avraham and Sarah does not receive much attention. That is Lot, Avraham’s nephew. We first meet him when Terach sets out from Ur Kasdim, taking Avram and Sarai and …Lot. When Avram goes down to Egypt he is accompanied by Sarai and … Lot. When they come back, both Avram and Lot are rich, having been paid off by the king to get the h… out of there.
We get the feeling that Avram has unofficially adopted Lot, and in the absence of a biological heir, Avram is possibly considering leaving his wealth to his nephew. But something happens.
Avram and Lot have too much livestock, their shepherds are fighting and Avram tells Lot, let’s split up while WE are still on friendly terms. Your choice: go left (the north) and I’ll go right (the south). Go right and I’ll go left. Lot looks around, decides that left and right are losers, and chooses the lush valley to the east, saying, in a voice that the late Leonard Cohen might have used, “I’ll take Sodom.”
But we have been told that Sodom is inhabited by bad people. Very bad people. Thus, his willingness to go down and live there casts a shadow and a pall on his character. And it marks the final break between Avraham and Lot. When Avraham complains that he is childless, he says all he has left is his chief steward, Eliezer. Not Lot.
Why did he do it? Lush valleys? Lots of water? A veritable garden of Eden? Is that what he saw? Rabbi Ari Kahn suggests that he might have been reminded of Egypt with all its water and, no less important, with all the immorality of the Sodomites, which reminded him of Egypt (remember they had no problem taking another man’s wife as a concubine).
But the picture in the parsha is much grimmer and more ludicrous. Remember, our parsha begins with Avraham showering hospitality on three passers-by, strangers – washing their feet, having Sara prepare a full meal for them.
When two of these messengers, angels, arrive in Sodom, Lot similarly greets them and urges them to stay at his home because it’s dangerous out there (and that’s why they had better vamoose out of town at the dawn’s early light). And sure enough, the Sodomites gather outside his house and want to ‘get to know’ these strangers.
What does Lot do? He has learned from Avraham that you must safeguard your visitors, and so in a grotesque parody of Avraham, Lot offers his two virgin daughters as substitutes for the masses to do with as they wish. Mr. Hospitality in person.
Lot’s end is not a happy one. He escapes with his life and his daughters and he heads for the hills. There his daughters get him drunk, rape him and give birth to children who become the Moabites and the Ammonites.
How did this happen? How did the person who was so close to Avraham descend to such depths? Rabbi Kahn gives an interesting interpretation. He says that Lot found it difficult to always be in the shadow of Avraham, who was the most spiritual and generous soul Lot would ever meet.
What did Lot see in Sodom? He saw people so bad that even he, Lot, would be considered righteous among them. Where does this idea come from? The Torah. As the people storm Lot’s house to drag out the newcomers they yell at him, You came as an immigrant and now you want to set yourself up as our judge?
The medrash likes that idea. He would tut-tut-tut about the Sodomites’ behavior, but actually he lived there very well. Perhaps Lot thought that if he could bring some of Avraham’s goodness and good practices to Sodom, it would have a positive effect on the populace. Perhaps he could serve as a quasi-judge/prophet/holy person who could bring some light to this den of iniquity.
But the laws of gravity and of social behavior always win out. It’s much easier to bring a person down than to lift him up. Once you throw your lot in with a bad bunch, it is very hard to keep your own head above the filth level and practically impossible to lift others up, even if only to be on a par with you.
We see the corrosive effect of bad on good all the time. Religious parties go into politics ideally to raise the level of politics so that it is imbued with some of the holiness of religion. The result is always the victory of politics over religion.
In every election we have another knight on a white horse who is going to save our country from ourselves. And their armor is shining and unmarred, not having been sullied by the infighting and battles of the body politic. Meanwhile, we, the public, gullibly believe – because we want to believe – that these newcomers can do it. And some of them say, yes, we know there are pitfalls and dangers but we will be careful. And carefully, and almost willingly, they throw themselves into the first trap they encounter, and then the second and third, until they are forgotten. Sometimes it takes one term, sometimes two. Maximum three.
We can see Lot as the foil of Avraham. The other side of the coin. From every temptation Avraham emerged stronger, and Lot emerged weaker. And that’s the difference between them. We can also see Lot as Everyman. Here is a person who worked hard to be what he wasn’t (to be like Avraham) and when that didn’t work, he succumbed to his true nature or to the inevitability of gravity. Perhaps the same is true of our politicians. Or of us.