Lot and Avraham

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            In the previous shiur, we examined a midrash that compared the contrasting appearance of the angels to Avraham and to Lot. In that case, we were interested in the angels. Today, we shall examine the several comparisons that the midrash makes between these two characters, Avraham, and his nephew Lot.


            Drawing a comparison between two Biblical characters is a staple of midrashic analysis. This can take one of two forms - either showing the similarities between two apparently unrelated characters, or the differences between two similar ones. Now, we know that Lot is clearly not a "tzaddik," so the comparison between them will undoubtedly be to show the differences (as we shall shortly see). But then the question is, what is the point of the comparison, for there is no reason for us to have assumed that Lot and Avraham were similar in the first place? Are the differences between them so subtle that it is necessary to highlight them for us?


A. Brothers


            The answer is - yes! Lot and Avraham are strikingly similar. Before we see the basis for this statement, let us first see where the Sages explicitly state the similarity.


Back in parashat Lekh Lekha, Lot and Avraham part ways, after their shepherds argue. Avraham suggests that moving apart will be the best way to avoid dispute.


"Avram said to Lot: Let there not be a dispute between me and you, and between my shepherds and yours, for we are brothers" (13,8).

Were they then brothers (Avraham was actually Lot's uncle)? Rather, his facial appearance was similar to his. (Bereishit Rabba 41,6).


            When a midrash states that the physical appearance of Avraham and Lot were similar, what is the intended message? Why should we care that they looked alike, since in no way does this bear on the understanding of the story? After all, the dispute between the two clans is not based on how they looked! The answer is that the midrash is telling us that the two men were similar, and in a deeper sense than mere external appearance. As Avraham had stated, they were brothers. By interpreting this fraternity as physical appearance, the midrash is not meaning to imply that it was only physical, which would not really be called fraternity at all, surely not in the sense that Avraham is using to it, to be a reason why they should not fight. The midrash means that there was real fraternity between them, but this was itself somewhat superficial. On the surface, they were very similar personalities, easily confused or interchanged. Avraham is implying that there exists a confluence of values and mission between them, which is externalized by their shared appearance. On the other hand, the midrash is hinting that this similarity is nonetheless superficial, and will, on further analysis, turn out to be misleading and basically false.


            This at least superficial similarity does explain why Avraham is taking Lot along with him in the first place. Avraham, who has no children, apparently hopes that Lot will be his heir, and is raising him to fulfill that role, not merely materially and financially, but spiritually as well. It takes the dispute hinted at in the parasha to open Avraham's eyes to the inappropriateness of this plan.


"God spoke to Avram AFTER LOT SEPARATED from him" (Bereishit 13,14).

R. Nechemia said: God was angry (with Avraham) all the time that Lot traveled with our father Avraham. God said: I said to him, "I have given this land to your seed," and he attaches himself to his nephew in order that he inherit him?!!! If so, why not bring two foundlings from the streets and make them his heirs, as he wants to do with his nephew?!? (41,5).


            This midrash implies that not only was Avraham mistaken about Lot's true character, but that he was wrong, even sinful, to have done so. The reason given is that God had already promised him children of his own, at least by implication, and hence Avraham's efforts to educate Lot were misplaced. I think, though, that even given this reason, the language of the midrash implies that Avraham should have perceived on his own that Lot was also unreformable, and not merely not his natural child. The word used to indicate Avraham's efforts is "madbik," which implies that Avraham was forcibly and strenuously attempting to keep Lot attached to him; i.e., one with him, although Lot's natural tendency was to be separate and apart; i.e., different. If it is possible to reform Lot, says God, then it is possible to choose someone at random, a foundling in the street, and bring him up as the heir of Avraham as well.


            In other words, the midrash says, that not everything is education, or in modern words, environment. There is also character, and Lot does not possess it, at least not in the measure that will allow him to be the one who will continue to build the Jewish people and fulfill the role of forefather.


B. Social Responsibility and Self-Sacrifice


            Interestingly enough, though perhaps not unexpectedly, there is a midrash which expresses the opposite thought.


R. Yuda said: God was angry with Avraham our father at the time that Lot his nephew departed from him. God said: He attaches himself to everyone, and to Lot his brother he does not attach himself?!! (ibid.)


            We have here a classic educational dilemma. Does one cut the difficult, recalcitrant pupil loose, expel him from the school, in order to protect the other students and thereby produce excellence, or is one expected to sacrifice and take risks in order to make every effort to save the individual? Of course, Avraham's case is special, and this too cuts both ways. On the one hand, Avraham is engaged in the initial creation of the holy community. One most ensure that the roots, the foundation stones, are especially strong, in order to establish on them the eternal "Knesset Yisrael." Risks and compromises that can be easily taken later are perhaps to be eschewed at the foundations. In this sense, we can understand the determination of the avot to marry only from within the close family of Avraham, and not from the Canaanite people, although the children of Yaacov apparently were not so bound. Lot might well have been worth tremendous efforts were it a question of including him within a strong existing people, but as one of the avot, as a foundation pillar for that faith-community, he simply cannot be brought up to mark.


            On the other hand, Avraham's own qualifications as the initial pillar of the community is based on his unqualified support for the spiritual welfare of all others, as we saw in a shiur from last year, where his defense of the wicked people of Sedom was highlighted as the root of his being chosen by God. This is indicated in the language of R. Yuda - Avraham attaches himself to everyone, tries to bring all sorts of strangers and passers-by within the "wings of the Presence," and this is in fact his characteristic mark. Why, then, should he give up on his own nephew?


            I suspect that these two opinions in this midrash are hinting at an additional consideration. In both of them, the fact that Lot is Avraham's nephew is stressed as part of God's complaint against Avraham. Is it not possible that R. Nechemia is hinting that Avraham is overlooking Lot's shortcomings because he is his nephew (the Hebrew is even stronger - "his brother's son" - as there is no single word for nephew in Hebrew). Why, asks God, is Lot to be preferred over two foundlings from the street, if merit is going to be ignored? Family ties are not meant to be considered here, if they come at the expense of merit and intrinsic worth. In other words, God is accusing Avraham of nepotism, and is angry with him until Avraham finally realizes on his own that this must stop. R. Yuda perceives the opposite. Avraham is concerned with every stranger; yet with his own nephew (his BROTHER, in the language of the midrash), he is impatient and unforgiving! There is a principle in halakha based on the verse " Your own flesh do not ignore." His obligation to his own flesh and blood is greater than that towards others. We know, in fact, that historically there is a phenomenon of people who have great influence and success with the masses failing with their own children. R. Yuda might be imputing to Avraham just this failing.


            Going back to my original point about this disagreement in the midrash, it might well be that there is no contradiction in principle between the two opinions. The foundation of the Jewish people does indeed demand that it be founded on better material than the personality of Lot. Avraham's "political-spiritual" role requires that he separate Lot from the family, which in fact is what happens. God does reiterate to Avraham that his future will be with the future child Yitzchak, just as one of Yitzchak's children will be rejected and the other will be the continuation of the Jewish founding dynasty. On the other hand, the personal role of Avraham as the paradigm of ethics would lead one to expect, as God does according to R. Yuda, that Avraham would invest in every soul, and surely in his nephew, and not give up on any. Hence God can criticize Avraham for giving up on Lot even as He promises him the Land of Israel for his future seed, the children among whom Lot is not included.


            The same duality was discussed in a shiur last year, when we compared Avraham's activities among the general population of Canaan with his eventual success only with his one son. Avraham's greatness was his universalist concern, though historically it turned out to be misplaced. One might even conclude that his success as father of the particularist nation of Israel derives from his universalist character, and that was in fact the reason God chose him to fulfill what turns out to be God's particularist plan.



C. Comparison - hospitality


            Given that Avraham and Lot bear an at least superficial resemblance in character, what are the differences? For this we return to parashat Vayeira, to the story of Lot and the angels who come to destroy Sedom.


            Lot invites the strangers in to his home. The Sages saw "hakhnasat orchim," the hosting of guests, as one the hallmarks of the righteousness of Avraham, and hence were struck by the actions of Lot, especially as they come immediately after Avraham had done the same, to the same strangers. When Lot gives food to his guests, the Sages comment, "He spent time in the home of Avraham our father, who would host the passers-by" (50,4).


"Lot saw them and rose to greet them…. He said, see now, my masters, turn please to the house of your servant, and rest and wash your feet, and arise and go on your way" (19,2-3).

R. Yudan and R. Huna

R. Yudan said: "Turn please" - even if I am not worthy, bend your way (go out of your way) to me.

R. Huna said: Bend your way so that it not appear that you are coming to me. (50,4)


            The two opinions in the midrash are explaining the request of Lot that the strangers should "turn" towards him, which they interpret to mean that they should not go directly on their way, but turn off. The verse itself appears to be a model of proper hospitality, as Lot beseeches them to enter his home and avail themselves of his services. R. Yudan indeed interprets the "turning" accordingly. Even if your path does not directly lead to my door, please turn aside and come to me. Lot makes an extra effort to be hospitable and to fulfill this mitzva of "chesed," as he has learned in the house of Avraham. What's more, he expresses a high sense of humility, indicating that the guests are honoring him more than he is honoring them.


            R. Huna interprets the "turning aside" more pragmatically. Lot is worried that the strangers will be harmed. The law in Sedom was that it was forbidden to harbor strangers in one's house. Lot tells the strangers to enter his house surreptitiously, so as not to be caught. There is surely nothing wrong with this caution, which is both to protect the strangers and, of course, to protect Lot himself. But in any event, R. Huna declines to perceive in this verse an extra-high degree of righteousness in the fulfillment of the mitzva of hospitality.


            This perception of R. Huna is based on a subtle comparison between Lot's invitation to the two angels and Avraham's invitation to the three angels who visited him, where the verb "turn" (sura) is absent. In this case, R. Yudan did not agree, perhaps because there is no exact parallel in Avraham's invitation, as he did not directly tell the angels to enter his home ("Do not pass over your servant"). But in the continuation of the invitation, the midrash perceives a direct and clear difference between Lot and Avraham, which while subtle, is unmistakable.


"Rest and wash your feet…."

Avraham preceded "washing" to "resting," but Lot preceded "resting" to "washing." Avraham was cautious concerning the dirt of idolatry (Rashi explains that the desert dwellers would worship the dust of their feet) and therefore preceded washing to resting; Lot did not care about the dirt of idolatry. (ibid.)


            Here we have a clear statement that, while Lot has learned from Avraham the importance of the mitzva of hospitality, he has missed some of the important details. This is especially important for the mitzva of hospitality. As Avraham's conduct indicates, this mitzva applies not only to tzaddikim. Avraham invites total strangers into his home, even though he in fact suspects that they are idolaters. But that raises a sensitive problem. Precisely because this mitzva is performed in one's home and not on the street, as would be true for charity work, there is a justified fear of bringing in outside influences into one's private life. The mitzva endangers one's own spiritual safety. Avraham therefore is careful to take precautions, even as he fulfills the mitzva in a superior manner. Before the strangers are allowed in to his home, he has them "wash off" some of the outside influence, so that his own hospitality not endanger the quality of the home into which they are being invited. But Lot does not take this precaution. Perhaps this indicates for us the nature of Lot's failings. Lot has learned from Avraham how to be hospitable but not how to protect himself from the dangers of hospitality. If Lot has chosen to live in Sedom, we should not then be surprised if he has allowed some of the influence of Sedom to enter his home, and consequently, his character.


            I cannot hide the fact that in regard to this matter of the feet-washing as well, Lot has his defenders.


But there are others who say: In this manner as well he acted properly. (He did not have them wash their feet when they came) in order that when they leave (the Sedomites) would see the dust on their feet, and therefore not ask where they had rested. (ibid.)



D. Differences


            Hospitality was indeed something that Lot strove to fulfill in imitation of Avraham, in whose house he had lived. From here on, though, the differences become more pronounced.


            After the entire episode of Lot and Sedom is over, the midrash comments on the opening verse of the next section, which returns us to the life of Avraham.


R. Abun began: "But a fallen mountain shall wither, and a rock moves from its place" (Iyov 14,18).

A fallen mountain - this is Lot, who fell from a mountain. (Rashi - his fall stems from what he did on the mountain).

A rock - this is Avraham - moves from its place - he changed his place. When Sedom was destroyed, traffic (along that route) ceased. Avraham said: Shall I then cease to perform righteousness in my home? He went and moved his tent to Gerar. This is what is written, "And Avraham moved FROM THERE…."



            Sometimes, it takes a crisis to crack open the exterior, thereby disclosing the underlying differences between two superficially similar nuts. The destruction of Sedom sends Lot fleeing to solitude in the mountain. He is afraid to live in the one town in which the angels had promised him refuge. There will be no travelers for him to greet there. Ultimately, his solitude in the mountain leads him to incest with his own daughters. The same event drives Avraham to move for the opposite reason. Hospitality is a necessity. If there are no guests, Avraham will move to where he can find them. This theme is repeated in the next two midrashim (52,2-3).


            The midrash concludes, "Just as there the defiled (shall not enter the community of the pure), so too 'A Moabite and an Ammonite (the descendants of Lot) shall not enter the community of God for ever.'"  Lot not only is not Avraham, and his descendants are not part of the Jewish people (i.e.; he has not inherited Avraham), but they cannot even join the Jewish people, unlike other nations, who can convert. Ultimately, Avraham's separation from Lot is justified on the national level. Having been so close, having within him the seeds of Avraham's teachings, but then having corrupted it, the consequent effect is worse, far worse, than for those who were never within Avraham's family. Lot's fall from the mountain is faster and more dramatic, and ultimately more repelling, than the decadent state of the rest of the world's population. Having a good upbringing is no guarantee of spiritual success.



Next shiur: The akeida (part 1)