“Abram’s Dispute with Lot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, we read of G-d’s call to Abram (his name has not yet been changed to Abraham) to leave his homeland, and to go to an unidentified new land that G-d will show him.

After journeying nearly 750 kilometers from Haran, Abram arrives in Canaan, and moves from place to place, setting up altars, perhaps outreach posts, to teach the people of the land about the monotheistic G-d.

Soon there is a famine in the land and Abram, Sarai and Lot, Abram’s nephew, are forced to leave the land and go to Egypt.

After the famine ends, Abram and his family, along with his nephew, Lot, return to the land of Canaan with great wealth, livestock, silver and gold.

The Torah reports in Genesis 13:6 that due to their many possessions the land could not support Abram and Lot dwelling together. The Torah in Genesis 13:7 states, וַיְהִי רִיב בֵּין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה אַבְרָם וּבֵין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה לוֹט, וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי אָז יֹשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ, There was quarreling between the herdsman of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock–-and the Canaanite and the Perizzite were then dwelling in the land. Abram is upset by the quarreling, and says to Lot, Genesis 13:8, אַל נָא תְהִי מְרִיבָה בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ וּבֵין רֹעַי וּבֵין רֹעֶיךָ,  כִּי אֲנָשִׁים אַחִים אֲנָחְנוּ, “Please let there be no strife between me and you, between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are kinsmen–brothers.” He goes on to tell Lot that there is much land before them and suggests (Genesis 13:9) that they separate. “If you go left, I will go to the right, if you go to the right, I will go left.”

Captivated by the lush valley, Lot chooses for himself the entire plain of the Jordan and pitches his tent as far as Sodom.

From the Torah’s description, the apparent problem was that because both Abram’s and Lot’s wealth had grown so great and because the Canaanites dwelt in the same territory, there simply was not enough pasture for all the flocks.

The Midrash, however, suggests that, beneath the surface, there was a much deeper rift. Since the Canaanites still occupied the land, the shepherds of Abram were very careful to only graze their flocks on no-man’s land, so that they would not be guilty of stealing from the pastures that belonged to the native inhabitants. On the other hand, Lot’s shepherds regarded the land as theirs, since they knew that G-d had promised the land of Canaan to Abram, and that since Abram had no heirs, they were certain that Lot would eventually inherit it all. They disregarded the fact that the Canaanites were still living there and that the land was still owned and controlled by them. The shepherds of Abram, who practiced their master Abram’s morality, felt that the actions of Lot’s shepherds was not only wrong, but were concerned that their deeds would reflect poorly on Abram (especially since according to tradition both Abram and Lot were almost identical in appearance and could easily be mistaken for one another).

The commentators thus suggest that it was not insufficient pasture land that was the cause of the strife between the shepherds, but rather the moral and ethical differences between the two groups of shepherds and their respective masters.

The commentators of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 7a) famously note that when two people are in love, even the blade of a knife is wide enough for them to sleep on together. Is it possible that in the great land of Canaan there was not enough room for the two flocks to graze without stepping on one another’s toes? Obviously, the conflict between the shepherds was attributable to the spiritual and ethical differences between their masters.

Apparently, Abram was upset not only because Lot’s shepherds were stealing the property of others, but also because their actions would lead the local residents to conclude that Abram and his extended family were argumentative people. If an uncle and nephew, who are like brothers, cannot get along with each other, imagine how dangerous these newly-arrived Semites will be as neighbors.

The Netziv in his commentary, adds that Abram was concerned that the people will fear a conflict between the shepherds more than a conflict between Abram and Lot, since shepherds are more likely to turn mean and violent, an unlikely occurrence for Abram and Lot.

The author of Tochachat Mussar cited in Ish L’ray’ay’hoo, suggests that it is important to note the difference between the two Hebrew words, רִיבRiv” and מְרִיבָהM’ree’vah.” The Torah opens the story of the conflict between the shepherds with the words, וַיְהִי רִיבVah’y’hee riv,” there was a quarrel, and only later does Abram say to Lot, אַל נָא תְהִי מְרִיבָה – let there not be “strife.” The Holy Shelah explains that the Hebrew word “Riv,” means argument. However, an argument that is not quickly resolved, evolves into “M’ree’vah,” great strife. Abram says to Lot, we must stop this quarrel (“Riv”) right away (“Riv” is a masculine noun), so that it should not develop into a “M’ree’vah,” strife, a feminine noun, which reflects that it can “give birth” to greater discord.

Apparently, Abram is deeply concerned that the quarrel will escalate into long-term strife. Therefore, despite the fact that he knows that he is justified and that Lot’s shepherds are common thieves, Abram is prepared to swallow the bitter pill, to move away, allowing his greedy nephew, Lot, to seize the best land.

Lot, on the other hand, had every reason to respectfully yield to Abram. After all, Lot’s very survival and everything that he had, he owed to Abram. But his great obsession with wealth and possessions did him in. Despite being exposed to Abram and nurtured on his uncle’s teachings, learning from the master ethicist how to conduct one’s life, Lot absorbs very little and is ultimately more attracted to his would-be compatriots, his “birds of a feather,” in the city of Sodom. Were it not for Abram, Lot too would have suffered, together with the Sodomites, their fate of total annihilation.

May you be blessed.