Lot and Yitzchak
INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
Lot and Yitzchak
By Rav Michael Hattin
Introduction and the First Half
Parashat Vayera continues the narrative of Avraham and Sarah's lives. Although it details a number of pivotal episodes, the parasha as a whole can be conveniently divided up into two all but equal halves. The first half of the parasha revolves almost exclusively around the doomed cities of Sodom and Amora, while the second half narrates events surrounding the birth and upbringing of Yitzchak. In more specific terms, we can organize these first episodes according to the following list:
1) Bereishit 18:1-22 The arrival of the Divine messengers to Avraham, their surprising news of Sarah's imminent conception and birth, and their subsequent journey towards Sodom to destroy it.
2) Bereishit 18:23-22 Avraham's impassioned plea to God to preserve Sodom from destruction on behalf of the 'righteous' people that dwell within it.
3) Bereishit 19:1-14 The arrival of the messengers in Sodom, their reception in the house of Lot (Avraham's nephew), the attempt by the people of Sodom to attack them, and their announcement to Lot of their true mission to obliterate Sodom and its satellite towns.
4) Bereishit 19:15-29 The narrow escape of Lot, his wife, and remaining two daughters, their flight to seek refuge in Tzoar, the demise of his wife for turning back, and Avraham's disappointment concerning Sodom's destruction.
5) Bereishit 19:3038 Lot's decision to flee to the caves, and his ignominious acts of inadvertent incest leading to the birth of two children.
So concludes the first half of the parasha. As can be seen, it is indeed the account of the city of Sodom and its dependencies, their indistinct iniquity and ruinous downfall. Significantly, however, it is also the story of Lot, whose fortunes seem to be inextricably (but not inexplicably) bound up with those of Sodom. In fact, the conclusion of the account of Sodom's destruction is the last time that we will hear of Lot, although the chronicles of his offspring, the nations of Ammon and Moav, and their often strained relations with Bnei Yisrael, cover the major part of the Biblical period.
The Second Half
As stated above, the succeeding half of the parasha revolves around the birth and nurture of Yitzchak. An inventory of its episodes yields the following:
1) Bereishit 20:1-18 Avraham and Sarah's relocation to Gerar, Avimelekh's attempt to take Sarah as his wife, God's nocturnal warning to Avimelekh and his urgent return of Sarah to Avraham along with parting gifts.
2) Bereishit 21:1-21 The birth of Yitzchak, the resulting conflict with Yishmael as a competing heir, the sending away of Hagar and Yishmael to the inhospitable wilderness, their preservation by Divine intervention and the Divine assurance to Hagar concerning progeny and nationhood.
3) Bereishit 21:22-34 Avimelekh's procurement of an oath of concordance from Avraham and their ratification of a treaty at Be'er Sheva.
4) Bereishit 22:1-19 The 'Akeida,' or Binding of Yitzchak.
5) Bereishit 22:20-24 The belated news regarding the offspring of Milka and Nachor, Avraham's brother.
Thus, in the parasha's second half we find Yitzchak's birth heralded by Sarah's return to a state of youthful vigor (hence Avimelekh's amorous interest see Ramban 20:2), and we note how a series of traumatic exchanges with Avraham's other son, Yishmael, inevitably follow. In this section, much of the drama unfolds in the environs of Gerar against the backdrop of Avimelekh's court. The culminating episode is, of course, the binding of Yitzchak.
How to Connect the Two?
Obviously, the arrangement of the parasha is a conscious attempt to draw a connection between its two halves that at first glance appear to be completely unrelated. On the one hand we have the story of the wicked city of Sodom and the other cities of the 'fertile plain of the Jordan,' and on the other hand, the towns of Gerar and Be'er Sheva, located worlds away in the arid Negev. The first half focuses on Lot and his close escape at the behest of the Divine messengers, while the second revolves around the arrival of Avraham and Sarah's long-awaited progeny and their sometimes strained relations with Avimelekh. There appears to be nothing that links the two halves of the parasha, no common ground or recurring theme. In fact, there is not even an attempt to provide a meaningful transition from the first half to the second. The one concludes with the very abrupt but irreversible exit of Lot from the pages of Genesis, and the second begins with the equally curt announcement of Avraham and Sarah's relocation from Elonei Mamre in the area of Chevron, to the region of Gerar and Be'er Sheva. Is there any way to understand the jarring juxtaposition of the parasha's fissured halves?
There is really only one component that can be singled out as common to both parts of the parasha, although it is not immediately apparent if or how that ingredient connects the two. The single aspect that finds expression in both halves of the parasha is, of course, Avraham and Sarah themselves. Now, this aspect alone does not seem to be a reasonable means of overcoming the bifurcation of the section, for the parasha of Vayera, like Lekh Lekha that preceded it and Chayei Sarah that follows, is primarily the story of these two individuals.
The Theme of Offspring
To therefore be more specific, what unites the two halves of parashat Vayera is the account of Avraham and Sarah as it is reflected in their quest for offspring. Clearly, the second half of the parasha relates to progeny, for it focuses on the birth and care of Yitzchak, and the remaining events of the section all are functions of that new development. The conflicts with Yishmael, the apprehensions of Avimelekh, and the dramatic Akeida all are consequences of Yitzchak's appearance. Even the announcement of Milka and Nachor concerning offspring, with which the parasha closes, relates to Yitzchak, for he is destined to marry Rivka, daughter of Betuel their son.
But how is the first half connected to this hope for children? It rather appears to pivot almost exclusively around the destruction of Sodom by the disguised angels. We do note with curiosity, however, how the parasha begins not with the messengers' sudden declaration of Sodom's ruin, but rather with their unexpected announcement of Yitzchak's birth!
Lot as the Child of Avraham and Sarah
Let us consider the matter further, this time from the perspective of Lot, Avraham's nephew. As we have seen, the story of Sodom's downfall is the story of his undoing as well. Recall that Lot has been an integral part of the Patriarch's household from the moment that the family had started their westward migration towards Canaan.
"Terach took Avraham his son, Lot his grandson the son of Haran, and Sarah his daughter-in-law, and they set out from Ur Kasdim towards the land of Canaan. They traveled as far as Charan and dwelt there..." (Bereishit 11:31).
Lot, whose father Haran had inexplicably perished in Ur and whose mother is completely absent from the account, is cared for by his grandfather Terach and by his uncle and aunt Avraham and Sarah. It is the latter two, themselves barren and childless, who will eventually be solely responsible for Lot's welfare. When Terach decides to remain at Charan while Avraham and Sarah are called by an irresistible Voice to continue the journey, Lot accompanies them:
"Avraham went as God had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Avraham was seventy-five years old at the time that he left Charan. Avraham took Sarah his wife, Lot his nephew, and all their possessions and servants that they had acquired in Charan, and they journeyed towards Canaan..." (Bereishit 12:4-5).
As Avraham and Sarah traverse the land proclaiming God's oneness, Lot accompanies them. When famine forces them down to Egypt, Lot follows them. When they leave the land of Egypt heavy with fortune, Lot is by their side. The inevitable conclusion is that Avraham and Sarah are more than simply Lot's doting relatives, but are in fact his surrogate parents, the only father and mother that he has known. This of course implies that Lot is like their child, and it would therefore not be unfounded to suggest that Avraham and Sarah, who have already despaired of having their own offspring, may even regard him as their sole and legitimate heir. Had not God promised to make the descendents of Avraham and Sarah a great and numerous nation? Had not the journey to Canaan been undertaken with the objective of founding a people? Would it not be reasonable for them to assume that God's promise would be accomplished through the only 'descendent' that they have, the youth whom they have nurtured and raised, the apple of their aging eyes, the aspiring Lot?
Lot's Fateful Decision
As the saga unfolds, however, it becomes apparent that although Avraham and Sarah may have initially believed that Lot would be their physical heir and spiritual scion, Lot has other ambitions. The return from Egypt soon precipitates a conflict, for the flocks of both men are now too numerous to graze on the same land. Generously, Avraham offers Lot his choice of pasture, and Lot turns his eyes towards the fertile plain of the Jordan.
"Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered. This was before God had destroyed Sodom and Amora, when the land was still as fertile as God's garden and the land of Egypt, all the way to Tzoar. Lot chose the plain of the Jordan and traveled from the east, and thus the two men parted. Avraham dwelt in the land of Canaan and Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, pitching his tents UNTIL SODOM. The people of Sodom were very evil and iniquitous before God..." (Bereishit 13:10-13).
By favoring the plain of the Jordan, Lot makes a fateful decision. Indeed, the land is fertile and its sources of water are abundant, but the cities of the plain are corrupt. Not overly concerned with the ethical dimension, Lot casts his lot with them, choosing the promise of material abundance over the danger of moral regression. His role models, Avraham and Sarah, are exemplars of uprightness, and perhaps Lot feels confident that having imbibed their values, he can successfully withstand the temptation of Sodom.
Immediately after Lot's departure, God again appears to Avraham:
"God said to Avraham IN THE AFTERMATH OF LOT'S DEPARTURE: 'Lift up your eyes to the north, south, east and west, for all of the land that you see shall be yours and your descendents forever. Your progeny will be as numerous as the dust of the earth...'" (Bereishit 13:14-15).
The separation from Lot had no doubt been a great disappointment for Avraham and Sarah, and their hopes for the future were suddenly thrown into disarray. God's vision thus comes to allay their fears, to set their minds at ease that indeed the moral and spiritual revolution for which they have devoted their lives will not die with their expiration but will in fact live on, through their 'own' descendents!
The Downward Spiral
When next we meet Lot, he has been taken captive by the four Mesopotamian kings who have descended upon the five cities of the plain in a punitive campaign to collect tribute. The five are defeated, and the victorious kings carry off captives and booty:
"They (the four kings) took all of the possessions of Sodom and Amora, as well as their foodstuffs, and went. They took Lot, Avraham's nephew, and all of his possessions and went, for he was DWELLING IN SODOM" (Bereishit 14:11-12).
Avraham, mustering the men of his household, soon saves Lot and the other captives of Sodom as well as the booty from the kings' clutches. The surviving King of Sodom offers him the booty in exchange for the captives, but Avraham demurs:
"...lest you (the King of Sodom) claim that: 'I have made Avraham wealthy..." (Bereishit 14:23).
It is significant indeed that Lot's tents are no longer pitched 'until' Sodom, tentatively touching its periphery, for here the text describes Lot as 'dwelling in Sodom.' In other words, since leaving Avraham's side and staking out his own future, Lot has been caught up in the vortex of Sodom's contagious desires. How telling that Lot has become part of Sodom's material world, a world that Avraham categorically rejects and from whose plenty he refuses to profit.
It is not until our parasha that Lot reappears, as Sodom and Amora are about to be destroyed. As the celestial messengers look out over the enticing landscape of the cities of the plain and prepare to journey, the text reveals a rare but critical Divine aside:
"God said: 'How can I conceal my plans from Avraham? Avraham will be a great and powerful nation, and all of the peoples of the earth will be blessed on his account. For I know that he will command his children and household after him to observe God's ways, to do acts of righteousness and justice, so that God may bring upon Avraham all that He had spoken!' God proclaimed: 'the cry of Sodom and Amora is very great, and their iniquity is very grievous...'" (Bereishit 18:17-20).
Avraham and Sodom are here cast in sharp relief, as champions of antithetical and irreconcilable worldviews. Avraham stands for righteousness and justice, morality and goodness, honesty and decency, while Sodom is full of corruption, sated on greed, and numb to the outcry of its oppressed unfortunates.
And where is Lot? As the messengers arrive in the city towards evening, Lot sees them
"for he was sitting AT THE GATE OF THE CITY..." (Bereishit 19:1).
The gate of a city in the ancient Near East was the honored location where judges heard litigation, and within its shadow matters of state were discussed, official business was contracted, and commerce thrived. One who was privileged to sit at the gate of the city had achieved an eminent status, an envious position of political and judicial power. Lot, it seems, had done very well for himself, for he now was a member of Sodom's elite.
Lot and the Guests
How touching is Lot's invitation to the messengers to be his guests, and how poignant his insistence that counters their hesitation, for it calls to mind Avraham's own example at the opening of the parasha. There, Avraham had graciously invited the guests, hurriedly prepared a sumptuous banquet, and personally waited upon their needs, and Lot his nephew does likewise. As news of the wayfarers' arrival spreads in Sodom, however, the people of the city menacingly gather around Lot's home, demanding the release of the guests to their sinister custody. Lot, in perhaps his finest hour, attempts to dissuade them by referring to the ancient custom (apparently not widely observed in Sodom) of offering unconditional refuge to one's guests. In lieu of the innocent guests, Lot breathlessly suggests, "I will give you my two virgin daughters, so that you may do to them as you please..." (Bereishit 19:8). The Ramban discerningly comments:
"This man's praiseworthy conduct reveals his vileness! How diligently he tried to preserve the lives of his guests who had found refuge in his home. But to appease the evil people of the city with his own daughters reveals his wickedness of heart, for he did not consider his offer to constitute a violent injustice against them. Our Sages have pointed out that typically a person gives up his own life for the sake of his children or his spouse, but Lot would rather surrender them..." (commentary to 19:8).
How pathetically but precisely does this pivotal passage paint Lot's caricature, for dwelling in Sodom has twisted the features of his once-noble visage almost beyond recognition. Indeed, in a flashback to the lives of his uncle and aunt, Lot affably invited the guests to his abode and offered them lodging. But how their precious banner of advocating good over bad, right in place of wrong, and morality instead of turpitude had become a tattered and faded shred in the corrosive atmosphere of Sodom, where Lot had finally achieved civic prominence but had surrendered his soul in the process. Once, a long time back, he had been wary of Sodom's reputation and had pitched his tent outside of its perimeter. Later, his once-stern moral bearings slowly worn down by its daily parade of debauchery and depravity, he ventured to dwell within the city. Still, he remained aloof from its criminal chieftains who misused their authority to advance their agenda of avarice. But those days had long since passed. Now he himself was one of those leaders, reveling in his celebrated role of 'magistrate!' A noble calling indeed to be a judge in the gates of Sodom!
Unable to Tear Oneself Away
Finally, the narrative reaching its climax, with dawn rising and sulphurous brimstone about to engulf the doomed city, the angels implore Lot to make haste, to flee with his wife and two remaining daughters.
"But Lot hesitated, so that the messengers had to grasp him by the hand...and deposit him outside of the city" (Bereishit 19:16).
Why is it that with destruction staring him in the face, Lot is unable to leave Sodom's grip? The man who would not dwell within its walls now is powerless to escape its deadly pull, for Lot's life has become bound up with its fortunes. Everything for which Lot has labored, a lifetime spent on hoarding riches and seeking fame, the skewed values that he has come to accept and to cherish, all conspire against him. Lot hesitates mightily because Lot IS Sodom. To leave now would be to renounce a fateful decision taken so long ago but now proven to be a mockery. To abandon Sodom now would be suicidal!
In the aftermath of Sodom's fiery overthrow, Lot understandably disappears from Biblical history. Becoming a cave dweller, he commits a final act of indecency with the very daughters he would have so readily surrendered, and with that closing scandalous exploit, he writes his epitaph. He is not remembered as a model of virtue, and his few decent deeds are eventually buried by the sands of time. In many ways, his life is a travesty, for the initial hopes and expectations that characterized its earlier chapters are irretrievably altered by Lot's tragic decision.
Conclusion A Tale of Two Children
Indeed, the parasha of Vayera is a tale of two 'children,' the first full of promise and potential but lacking moral fortitude, and the second young in years but charged with an innate sense of a sacred mission. Lot's trial and 'Akeida,' the immolation that he is willing to suffer if only to remain in Sodom, stands in stark contrast to that of his cousin Yitzchak, who himself is ready to sacrifice his life on God's altar for more noble aims.
As the parasha unfolds, Avraham and Sarah come to their own epiphany, for they realize that God's thoughts are not their thoughts and His ways are not their ways. The progeny that they ached for, the offspring that they so desired, the child that would ensure the permanence of their ideas by founding a nation, was mistakenly (but understandably) believed by them to be Lot, and perhaps it could have been so, had Lot not had other plans. Instead, Yitzchak's birth follows close on the heels of Lot's untimely and humiliating disappearance. Yitzchak will succeed where his older cousin failed, by holding steadfast to the legacy of Avraham and Sarah; "to do acts of righteousness and justice, so that God may bring upon Avraham all that He had spoken."