Lot Journeys Forth
"The Lord said to Avram: go forth from your land, your birthplace and your family, to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and magnify your name, and you shall be a source of blessing. I will bless those that bless you and curse the one who curses you, and all of the nations of the world shall be blessed on your account" (Bereishit 12:1-3). With God's sudden pronouncement, the trajectory of human history is forever changed. The individual failures of Adam, Chava and their wayward children, the downfall of the evil generation swept away by the Flood, the ruin of the frenzied tower builders with the premature cessation of their soaring enterprise, all of them intoxicated with hubris and numb to God's appeals, is here startlingly arrested. With the entry of Avram and Sarai into the arena of human history – a stage already cluttered with idolatry, profligacy, rivalry, tyranny, and warfare – the possibility of a different denouement to the oppressive saga of man's creation is introduced.
"There are ten generations from Adam to Noach. This indicates how compassionate God is, for although all of them caused Him consternation and anger, He withheld the Flood until the end. There are a further ten generations from Noach to Avraham. This indicates how compassionate God is, for although all of them caused Him consternation and anger, He persevered until Avraham came and received the reward due them all" (Mishna, Tractate Avot 5:2). The schemata of 'ten generations' listed at the conclusions of both Parashat Bereishit and Parashat Noach, are indicative of completions and turning points. It is the Flood that terminates the first era of human history, from Adam to Noach, for its violent but cleansing waters are the inevitable Divine response to a "civilization" sullied by moral degradation. It is the life and momentous journey of Avraham that concludes the second period, for with God's persuasive plea and Avraham's trusting consent, the revolutionary ideal of ethical monotheism is introduced to a skeptical and jaded world.
IMMEDIATE TESTS OF FAITH
Many are the hardships that await Avram and Sarai as they begin their trek westwards from Mesopotamia to Canaan, accompanied by Avram's nephew Lot. Upon reaching the Promised Land, they are almost immediately forced to vacate it, as Canaan is struck with one of the periodic famines that are not unusual for its arid hills. Descending to Egypt where the Nile flows unceasingly and sustenance is to be found, they experience their first of what will amount to numerous confrontations with mercurial and malicious monarchs. By God's grace, however, they emerge unscathed and return safely to Canaan, to resume their semi-nomadic but prosperous lives as shepherds. But trial upon trial await the two. Lot, the beloved nephew whom they had adopted, chooses to leave them, to establish his camp close to Sodom, only to be later taken captive by an alliance of four marauding eastern kings. Avram marshals his household and gives chase, unexpectedly routing the invading force and rescuing his nephew, who summarily resumes his residency in sinful Sodom.
This week, we will consider the catalyst for Lot's initial departure, the feud among the shepherds that is ostensibly precipitated by a lack of grazing land. Recall that after Avram and Sarai emerge from Egypt, they return to the northern stretch of the Canaanite hill country and to their pastoral lives herding sheep and goats. Arriving at the site of the altar that he had erected earlier near Beit El, grateful Avram invokes God's name (13:4). It is in the aftermath of that act of worship that conflict with Lot and his shepherds unexpectedly follows.
DIVIDING UP THE SECTION
We may conveniently divide up the passage into a series of smaller units:
1) 13:5-7 – the background to the conflict:
Lot also, who accompanied Avram, had sheep, cattle and tents. The land could not sustain them both so that they might dwell together, for their possessions were great and they could not dwell together. There erupted a struggle between the shepherds of Avram's flocks and those of Lot, and the Canaanite and the Perizite then dwelt in the land.
2) 13:8-9 – Avram's generous attempt to defuse the situation:
Avram said to Lot: let there not be a struggle between me and you, between my shepherds and yours, for we are people who are kin. Behold, the whole land is before you, separate please from me. If you choose north then I shall go south, if you south, then I shall go north.
3) 13:10-13 – Lot's fateful choice to dwell in fertile but morally corrosive environs of Sodom:
Lot lifted up his eyes and saw the well-watered plain of the Yarden, for this was before God had destroyed Sodom and ‘Amora, for then the approach to Tzo'ar was as fertile as the garden of God and the land of Egypt. Lot chose for himself all of the plain of the Yarden and he journeyed from the east, and thus the two men were separated from each other. Avram dwelt in the land of Canaan, but Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain and pitched his tent near Sodom. Now the people of Sodom were very evil and sinful to God.
4) 13:14-18 – God's reassuring promise in the aftermath of Lot's departure:
Go said to Avram after Lot had separated from him: lift up your eyes and see from the place that you are, to north and to the south and to the east and to the west. For all of the land that you see I shall give to you and to your descendents forever. I shall make your descendents as numerous as the dust of the earth, for just as no man can count the dust of the earth so too your descendents shall not be counted. Arise and traverse the land along its length and breadth, for I shall give it to you. Avram pitched his tent all the way to Elonei Mamre that is in the region of Chevron, and there he built an altar to God.
UNDERSTANDING THE DEARTH OF GRAZING LAND
The account is thus introduced by Avram's act of worship (at Beit El) and concludes with another one (at Elonei Mamre). The former site is in the northern hill country, the latter to the south. In between these narrative brackets of Avram's faith and trust, the conflict with Lot unfolds. Now the hill country of Canaan forms a prominent central spine for an aeronautical distance of almost 120 kilometers from north to south! It is inconceivable that it could not have afforded sufficient grazing land for two nomadic chieftains and their flocks, no matter how large their respective households! Obviously, the issue concerned not the land of Canaan but rather the local region of Beit El where Avram had initially set up his camp. It was the immediate environs of Beit El that could not support them both. This was especially the case once the indigenous Canaanites were taken into account, for the text relates that "the Canaanite and the Perizite then dwelt in the land" (13:7). As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) perceptively relates:
The use of the term "then" in the text indicates that the tribes that dwelt in the land at that time were nomadic. Some of them would gather at one location and graze there for a year or two and then move on to another place that had not yet been grazed. This was their practice, like the dwellers of the eastern deserts. (The text therefore tells that) the Canaanite and Perizite were then grazing in those southern areas, while the next year it might be visited by the Yevusite and Emorite (commentary to 13:7).
In other words, the lack of available grazing land in the immediate Beit El region where the flocks of Avram and Lot were both stationed was exacerbated by the presence in that very place of the native tribes and their own flocks. There was simply not enough for everyone. Thus, Avraindicated to Lot that he was prepared to relocate his household in order to remedy the matter, and magnanimously offered his nephew thechoice of pastures: "If you choose north then I shallgo south, if you south, then I shall go north" (13:9). Avram naturally assumed that Lot would remain in the hills with him, that they would be separated only by the geographic distance necessary for the welfare of their respective flocks, but that the semi-nomadic life that Avram had wisely chosen for them both would not be compromised. After all, hadn't Avram in all of his travels throughout the land consciously avoided the fertile and more heavily settled valleys and coastal plain, knowing full well that conflict or else accommodation with the idolatrous Canaanites would inevitably result?
Unexpectedly, however, Lot chose not only a different hilltop location, but a different way of life as well. "Lifting up his eyes" (13:9) neither to the north nor to the south, Lot instead gazed intently to the east, beyond the scrubby and desolate hills and towards the verdant plain of the Yarden. Well-watered and dotted by urban settlements, the plain of the Yarden suddenly attracted Lot's attention. Had he perhaps become enchanted by the possibilities of civilization during their stay in Egypt in the clutches of the mighty but morally corrupt Pharaoh?
THE ESSENCE OF THE MATTER
Thus Lot relocated, casting his stern uncle's cautions aside and pitching his tents near Sodom. But now the passage adds a detail, seemingly unrelated to the narrative and as textually fleeting as Lot's misgivings, that "the people of Sodom were very evil and sinful to God" (13:13). How masterfully has the Torah expressed the essence of the matter, the stark choice that confronted Lot when "fate" forced his hand and the flocks could no longer dwell together. Would he maintain his proximity and relationship with his uncle Avram, with the unusual moral values that had been the latter's hallmark and that had served as the source of his election by the silent God who had called the household forth from teeming Ur to transform the world? Or would Lot instead adopt the life of the verdant valley, luxuriant and rich, cultured but corrupt, that sparkled in the distance like some mythical jewel, worlds removed from the severe and windy hilltops of Beit El?
Echoing Avram's own journey forth, Lot too answers the challenge of "Lekh Lekha " but his destination is clear in his mind and his moral compromises at the ready. Abandoning the nomadic life of the shepherd, with all of its Biblical associations of introspection, self-reliance, and healthy suspicion for material blandishments, Lot descends from the hills and embraces the glittering but morally vicious world of Sodom.
CHALLENGES AND CHOICES
How these early parashiyot of the Torah seem to be filled to overflowing with choices, with challenges, with antithetical paradigms of champions of trust in God and their anti-hero nemeses! For every Hevel there is a Kayin, for every Noach a Nimrod, for every Malki Tzedek a Ber'a, and for every moderate and ennobling Divine command a serpent lurking in the shadows of human consciousness seeking to undo it! In short, for every Avram there is a Lot, both called from Ur, both charged with God's summons, both offered the reassurance of His assistance in exchange for fidelity to His word. But while Avram heard God's words and bravely embraced their implication, Lot's thoughts were eventually directed elsewhere. Orphaned under mysterious circumstances (see 11:28), nephew Lot loyally followed his uncle and aunt to Canaan and then down to Egypt, and for this the Torah remembers his fondly. But returning to the hills, Lot's priorities (suddenly?) changed and when opportunity strikes he was ready. How long was he plagued by thoughts of "moving on", for how many nights did he dream of something more tangible than the intense fulfillment that only spiritual pursuits can bestow?
When Lot leaves, Avram is disappointed, stung by his seeming failure to win even his own nephew's heart to God's cause. How will he succeed in transforming the world if his own kin abandons him? But now God reassured him and, resigned to the painful reality, Avram then built an altar to His name. "Lift up your eyes" (13:14), God said to him, echoing the memory of Lot's own covetous gaze eastwards. Lift up your downcast eyes and go on, for there is much work still to be done, many new challenges to be embraced, as-of-yet-undreamt-of triumphs to some day celebrate.
Lot, God seems to be saying, made his own choice, as all human beings inevitably must. It will not be Avram's mission in the world to FORCE compliance with God's laws and not even to CONVINCE others of their relevance. Avram, instead, will present to the world a paradigm of what ethical monotheism can achieve. But, in the end, some human hearts will be receptive while the pulse of the rest will remain directed Sodom-ward. It cannot be different, for the greatest gift that God has bestowed upon the human being is the freedom of choice to decide his own moral destiny. Lot's legacy unfortunately lives on, and the world often seems to proclaim his twisted values while those of his uncle have become silenced.
But there is yet hope. The journey of Avram and Sarai, commenced at Ur, continued at Canaan, and as of yet, uncompleted, will one day come to an end. In the meantime, as their descendents, we must champion their legacy, proudly proclaiming our allegiance to the God of Israel and our commitment to His teachings: "For I know that he will command his children and his household after him, to observe the way of God, to execute righteousness and justice, in order that God may bring upon Avraham all that He has spoken concerning him" (18:19).