“Lot, Nephew of Avram: The Promise and the Tragedy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, we encounter the fascinating relationship between Avram (remember, this is before his name was changed to Avraham) and his nephew, Lot. It is a complicated and evolving relationship, from which we can learn much.

According to the Midrashic tradition, when Avram was a young man he was caught destroying his father’s idols, and at the bidding of Avram’s father, Terach, the local king, Amrafel, ordered Avram cast into a fiery furnace. At the same time, King Amrafel asked Avram’s brother, Haran, whether he supported Avram or the idols. Haran attempted to hedge his bet and said that he would wait to see what happens to Avram. When Avram emerged unscathed from the fiery furnace, Haran said that he supported Avram. Amrafel had Haran thrown into the fiery furnace and he was burnt to a crisp.

Haran’s now orphaned son, Lot, joined Avram’s family for the long trek from Mesopotamia to the Promised Land. As it says in Genesis 11:31: “Va’yee’kach Terach et Avram b’no, v’et Lot ben Haran, ben b’no, v’et Sarai kah’lah’to, ay’shet Avram b’no.” And Terach took Avram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Avram’s wife, and they went forth with them from Ur of Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan. And they came unto Haran and dwelt there. We see from the juxtaposition of Lot’s name, mentioned right after Avram’s, even before Sarai, that Lot was considered to be an essential part of the family.

When Avram was 75 years old, G-d tells him to go to Canaan. The Torah tells us (Gensis 12:4): “V’yey’lech Avram ka’asher de’bayr ay’lav Hashem, va’yay’lech ee’to Lot.” So Abram went, as the L-rd had spoken unto him, and Lot went with him. (Gen. 12:5): “V’yee’kach Avram et Sarai eesh’to, v’et Lot ben ah’chiv, v’et kol r’chu’sham asher ra’cha’shu.” And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and entered the land of Canaan. We see that Lot’s importance had diminished, and that now Sarai comes before him. This is understandable, because now the Torah is focusing on Avram’s relationship with his wife, who logically takes precedence over Avram’s nephew, Lot.

Soon after they arrive in the land of Israel there is a famine, and Avram goes down to the land of Egypt to dwell there. Scripture mentions that Sarai goes down to Egypt with Avram, but there is no mention of Lot.

Avram becomes prosperous in Egypt. However, because Pharaoh feels that Avram has deceived him, he is expelled from Egypt. Genesis 13:1 tells us: “Va’ya’al Avram me’mitz’rayim, hu v’eeshto v’chol a’sher lo, v’Lot ee’mo, ha’negbah.” And Avram went up out of Egypt, he and his wife, and everything that he had, and Lot, and went to the South. Once again Scripture describes how even more removed Lot had become. While Lot is mentioned as part of the family, it is only as an afterthought.

As soon as they settle back in Canaan, Avram brings an offering. Scripture tells us that Lot, because of his relationship with Avram, is also wealthy. The Torah beautifully tells us (Gen. 13:6): “V’lo nasa o’tam ha’aretz la’sheh’vet yach’dav.” The land was not able to bear them to dwell together, for their substance was too great. An argument ensues between the shepherds of Avram and the shepherds of Lot. Avram tries to resolve the argument, and begs Lot not to quarrel. After all, says Avram (Genesis 13:8): “A’nashim a’chim a’nach’nu,” we are brothers. He tells Lot that the whole earth is before us, let us separate. If you go to the left, I will go the right, if you go to the right, I will go the left.

The Torah has a subtle way of teaching important lessons. It often does not spell these messages out clearly in the text. It relates these values through stories and narratives, rather than commands, almost through osmosis. For instance, the fact that not a single polygamous marriage in the Torah is successful is the Torah’s way of saying that multiple wives is not an acceptable way for a Jew. Similarly, the Torah indirectly coveys its messages about drunkenness and about the unity of the human race. In our case as well, through the story of Lot, the Torah beautifully and subtly conveys a vital message.

Lot should have been completely beholden to Avram–after all, he had been virtually adopted by Avram after his father’s death, and Avram had taken him in and nurtured him during the arduous journey from Haran to Canaan. It was by virtue of his association with Avram that Lot becomes wealthy in Egypt, and now, rather than Lot saying to Avram: “If you go to the right I will go to the left,” it is Avram who gives Lot the first and best choice of the land. It is at this moment that Lot makes a faithful choice. Despite the fact that Lot knew that the people of Sodom were corrupt, Lot consciously chooses the luscious plain of the Jordan, which the Torah tells us (Gen 13:8) was: “K’gan Hashem,” Well-watered like the Garden of the L-rd, and despite the fact that it was so close to Sodom and Gemorrah, Lot does not hesitate to choose that land as his future home.

Genesis 13:18 reads: “Va’yeh’eh’hal Avram, v’yavo, v’yayshev bay’lo’nai Mamrei, asher B’chevron.” Avram moves his tent and comes to dwell by the Terebinths of Mamre, which are in Chevron, and builds an altar to G-d. The commentaries tell us that Avram purposely chooses to dwell in Mamre, because the people there were the most moral people in the land of Canaan, but Genesis 13:12 informs us, “V’Lot yo’shayv b’arei ha’kikar, va’yeh’eh’hal ad Sadom,” Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, and moved his tent as far as Sodom.

Imagine the conversation between Avram and Lot: Avram warns Lot not to get too palsy-walsy with the people of Sodom. Lot replies, “Don’t worry, Uncle Abe, I can handle it, I can withstand the temptations.” Slowly, but surely, Lot is seduced into the environment of Sodom. It is, after all, virtually impossible to live near Sodom and not be seduced by its attractive, but decadent lifestyle. “Va’yeh’eh’hal ad S’dom,” and he moved his tent as far as Sodom. Once Lot made the purely materialistic decision, once he decided that the spiritual life of Avram was not for him, and instead chooses the lush, fruited plain, it was inevitable that Lot’s life and lifestyle would compel him towards Sodom.

In next week’s parasha, when the angels come into Sodom to destroy the city and to rescue Lot, we read (Genesis 19:1): “V’Lot yo’shayv b’sha’ar S’dom,” and Lot is sitting at the gate of Sodom. The Rabbis learn from this that, not only was Lot attracted to reside in Sodom by the amenities and luxuries and become a leading citizen of Sodom, but much more. He became a judge and enforcer of the vicious, cruel and immoral laws of Sodom. This is how such a radical transformation could take place. That is why a person who grew up in the household of Avram could say to the people of Sodom who wish to harm the visitors who come to him (Genesis 19:8): “Please, my brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters who know no men. Let me, I pray you, bring them out to you, and do you to them as is good in your eyes. Only unto these men do nothing.” In his perverted “new Sodomite morality,” Lot offers up his daughters to be violated by the men of Sodom, in order to save the strangers who come to his home!!

There was great promise to Lot. He probably could have been the material and spiritual heir to Avram, but instead he chose the luscious plain — he chose Sodom, and even after he suffers through the destruction of Sodom, he once again, because of his perverted altruism, gets drunk and allows his daughters to seduce him, and produce two nations — Amon and Moav, two of the very cruel nations of ancient times.

True to the Torah’s unique style, the Torah never writes off any human being. There is always an opportunity for Teshuvah. After all, it is Ruth, Lot’s great, great granddaughter, the Princess of Moav, who returns to Canaan, and re-introduces the quality of chessed, the quality of mercy to the families of Israel. How deeply insightful is the Torah’s characterization and understanding of the nature of human beings. How low they can sink, and yet the Divine hand is always outstretched to welcome them back.

May you be blessed.