Urgent message:

Given the most challenging situation in Israel at this time, I urge all to pray for the bereaved families, the hostages, the missing and the many casualties. Please try to perform additional mitzvot, send funds to help the needy and grieving families, and attend the rallies that are being organized in support of Israel.

May the Al-mighty protect the State of Israel, its citizens and bless it with peace!

“A Scriptural Assessment of Lot”
(updated and revised from Lech Lecha 5764-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Analyzing Torah texts can be quite exciting!

By paying close attention to specific words and verses in a Biblical narrative, much may be learned concerning the Bible’s assessment of a particular biblical personality. For example, in the story of Lot and Sodom, much is revealed about a particular person’s character by comparing that person’s behavior to the behavior of others in similar situations. The manner in which guests are welcomed, people’s reaction upon learning about the impending destruction of the city of Sodom, the respect they show, or fail to show, to other people’s property, can be most revealing and edifying. At times, there are subtle textual hints, such as a minor change in the wording, or changes in the syntax of a verse. Often, by studying the writings of the biblical commentators who were inordinately sensitive to textual nuances, we can more correctly ascertain the Torah’s assessment of a particular individual.

Such an analysis of the persona of Lot is to be found in a wonderful school guidebook entitled Shabbat B’Shabbato edited by Avraham Shtall.

The initial scriptural encounter with Lot takes place at the conclusion of last week’s parasha, parashat Noah (Genesis 11:31). We learn there that Terach, takes his son, Abram (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham), and his grandson, Lot, the son of Haran, and Sarai, Terach’s daughter-in-law (Abram’s wife), and departs from Ur Kasdim to journey to the land of Canaan. The rabbis of the Midrash are struck by the absence of Haran, Abram’s brother, in the list of those in Terach’s entourage, and conclude that Lot was an orphan, whose father Haran had been killed when he was cast into a fiery furnace by King Amraphel in a test of faith. The fact that Lot was orphaned at such a young age, may account for Lot’s apparent vulnerability, and perhaps explain why, throughout his life, Lot seems to be easily influenced by his environment.

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, at the half-point in the journey to Canaan, we once again encounter Lot, just as Abram leaves Charan, to conclude the journey to Canaan. When Terach and Abram originally set out to Canaan, the Torah notes: (Genesis 12:4), וַיֵּלֶךְ אִתּוֹ לוֹט, that Lot journeyed with Abram. In fact, the verse mentions Lot even before Sarai. However, as they leave Charan, scripture (Genesis 12:5), reports a readjusted order, and records that Abram first takes Sarai and only then takes Lot his nephew, and all their property, and everything that they had made in Charan.

Soon after Abram’s arrival in Canaan, a famine forces him to seek food in Egypt. A famous encounter takes place there between Pharaoh and Sarai. Strangely, there is no mention of Lot. Perhaps, Lot was too young and too insignificant to be mentioned. Yet, we know that Lot surely went down to Egypt because when Abram and Sarai leave Egypt (Genesis 13:1), Lot is mentioned! Notably, upon departure, Lot is listed only after Abram’s property. Perhaps in order to underscore how wealthy Abram had become in Egypt, Lot is only mentioned after the property. But more likely, the reason for the delay in mentioning Lot’s name is due to the fact that Lot has become more distant from Abram, perhaps more independent, as they travel up toward the Negev. Scripture explicitly notes (Genesis 13:5), that upon leaving Egypt Lot has also become wealthy. In fact, Lot is so wealthy, that the land could not support both Abram and Lot, and a quarrel breaks out (Genesis 13:7), between the shepherds of Abram and Lot’s shepherds.

The rabbis, cited by Rashi, speculate about the nature of the quarrel. The Midrash, Genesis Rabbah, 41:5, suggests, that the quarrel was over the fact that Lot’s shepherds would regularly graze their cattle on the fields of the Canaanites, without muzzling them. Lot’s shepherds rationalize these actions by arguing that G-d had promised the entire land of Canaan to Abram, and since Abram had no children, Lot would be his sole heir. Abram’s shepherds claim, however, that since the Canaanites and the Perizzites still dwell in the land (Genesis 13:7), the land still belongs to the Canaanites, and had not yet been given to Abram. Therefore, Lot’s shepherds had no right to graze their cattle on what was really stolen land.

Attempting to deal with Lot and his wealth in a peaceful manner, Abram says to Lot, (Genesis 13:8-9): “Please let there be no strife between me and you, between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not all the land before you? Please separate from me. If you go to the left, I will go to the right, if you go to the right, I will go to the left.” Lot does not appear to respond. The Torah records only that Lot lifts up his eyes and sees the entire lush plain of the Jordan. Upon beholding this fertile land, Lot’s obsession with wealth becomes evident, as he chooses for himself the land of the Jordan valley, and Abram and Lot part one from another. In taking leave from Abram, Lot accords no respect to the old patriarch, who was already 75 years old when he left Charan. In fact, Lot appears to act quite indifferently toward the man who, since Lot’s early years, served as his surrogate father, and was the person singularly responsible for Lot’s great wealth.

In this encounter, as confirmed by scripture, we see that blatant materialism plays a defining role in Lot’s life choices. The Torah, in Genesis 13:10, clearly underscores Lot’s obsession, וַיִּשָּׂא לוֹט אֶת עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא אֶת כָּל כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן כִּי כֻלָּהּ מַשְׁקֶה, And Lot raised his eyes and saw the entire plain of Jordan that it was well watered. Despite the fact that Lot probably knows that the people of Sodom are the most wicked and sinful people on the face of the earth, Lot is smitten by the promise of economic opportunity and pays no heed to the ethical compromises he will have to make if he chooses to live among these wretched people.

Scripture also points to the differences between Abram and Lot with respect to the way they welcome guests. Abram (Genesis 18:1), is thoroughly involved with his guests–his entire family actively serves them. He promises the guests little, then brings them a massive repast. And all this, despite the fact that he’s still recovering from his painful adult circumcision.

Lot, in Sodom, welcomes his guests only half-heartedly. He calls out to them, (Genesis 19:2), סוּרוּ“Soo’roo,” “Turn aside.” Despite his reluctance to have them join him, Lot persists, perhaps because of what he had learnt from Abram. Lot might be a bad guy, but because of his powerful ethical formative education by his gracious uncle, Abram, he is not totally wicked.

More of Lot’s true colors emerge with Lot’s ghastly ethical lapses when he suggests (Genesis 19:8), to the people of Sodom, who seek to attack him and his guests, that they instead take his two daughters. Most balanced parents would give up their lives to defend their daughters’ or wife’s lives, but Lot is plainly prepared to throw his daughters to the wolves.

Even when Lot learns from the angels that Sodom will be totally destroyed, Lot is reluctant to leave Sodom, (Genesis 19:16), to abandon his split-level home, his two-car garage, and his many high-tech electronic playthings. With the angels pulling him by the hand, Lot eventually escapes the destruction of Sodom.

Lot flees from Sodom in an apparently physically and emotionally weakened condition. Unable to run very far, he begs G-d (Genesis 19:19-20), for the right to flee to a little local loaction, and is granted his wish. Lot allows his daughters to get him drunk and has relations with them, in order to perpetuate the human race, which they thought, because of the destruction they had witnessed, had come to an end.

All in all, the biblical portrait of Lot is not very redeeming, but there does seem to be reason for, at least, some sympathy. After all, Lot was orphaned at an early age. He spent a good part of his childhood relocating from one land to another: starting in Ur Kasdim, then to Charan, followed by Canaan, Egypt, and Sodom. Major journeys such as these are usually profoundly disruptive, and can easily throw a person’s equilibrium off balance. Lot, who probably never felt rooted, was obviously easily influenced, at times for good–as when he welcomed guests into his home, but, most often, for bad–being strongly attracted to wealth and material possessions.

In essence, Lot is very much the world’s “Everyman,” neither very good nor very bad. On the one hand, the nations of Amon and Moav–nations totally devoid of gratitude, stem from Lot. On the other hand, Ruth the Moabite, the paradigm of chessed and loving-kindness, as well as the righteous Naamah the Ammonite, are also his progeny.

In the final analysis, the Torah essentially fails to give us a definitive portrait of Lot. Perhaps it really can’t, because Lot is a person of so many colors and dimensions.

Lot, in a sense, is intended to serve as a model for all to learn from both his good deeds and his shortcomings, and to teach others essential life lessons from both these factors. After all, that is really what life is all about.

May you be blessed.