Last week’s post had a question. When comparing two tzaddiks, Noah and Avraham, why is one known as the father of the Jewish people while the other is known for a cataclysmic flood? I’ll cut to the chase and say it all boils down to the fact that Avraham went out of his way to try to reach out to people tirelessly with chessed (kindness), with hospitality, while Noah gave up on those around him. Pretty clear cut right?
Except in this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, it seems that Avraham shows that very same failing, giving up on his closest relative, his nephew, Lot.
We don’t know too much about Lot. Most famous for surviving the armageddon that befalls Sodom and Gamarra (in next week’s Torah portion). Lot could have carried on the traditions of Avraham and been much more involved with the Jewish people. (As a side note, his DNA does make it back into the Jewish Gene Pool and in an essential way. But I’m not going to go into the messed up course of events that makes that happen.
We meet Lot when he departs with Avraham on his way to Israel. Avraham has decided (or rather was told by God) to leave his home and the rest of his family behind. Lot is a loyal follower to his uncle Avraham through Israel and in their debacle in Egypt. But when they settle in the lands between Beit El and Ai, things suddenly get testy.
This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us
The land was not enough for them to dwell together, because they both had a large amount of property and they could not dwell together. A quarrel broke out between the herdsmen [of the two’s] livestock. The Cena’ani and the Perizzi were the dwelling in the land. (Bereishis 13:7)
Avraham and Lot endure boundaries issues as their shepherds start fighting turf wars with each other. So Avraham decides that maybe they should part ways.
Please, let there not be any friction between me and you… for we are relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself now from me. If you go left, I shall place myself on your right, and if to the right, I shall place myself on your left. (Bereishis 13:8-9)
With ways parted, Lot goes off in the direction of the wicked city of Sodom as the Torah continues on with Avraham talking to God. But doesn’t that seem odd to you? Avraham, the master of connection, outreach, and hospitality… can’t live in the same zip code as his nephew? It’s not like there are a ton of people, its only bible times. In fact the very next line lists that the Cena’ani and the Perizzi were occupying the land next to them. If the land can support two civilizations, certainly it can handle one uncle and nephew pair.
A Lot Changed
When Avraham leaves his family in Charan and Lot first joins him the Torah says, “and Lot went with him” וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ אִתּ֖וֹ ל֑וֹט (Bereishis 12:4) אִתּ֖וֹ is the word used for with. According to the Vilna Goan, אִתּ֖וֹ specifically means to go with someone you’re following or to be lead. However after they leave Egypt, they both become very rich. At this point the Torah says, “Avram went up from Egypt… and Lot together with him.” (Bereishis 13:1) וְל֥וֹט עִמּ֖וֹ הַנֶּֽגְבָּה Here the word for with is עִמּ֖וֹ which more specifically means, “to go with as an equal.”
There’s no question that money can change a person. It opens doors, gives freedom, solves material problems, but also can dissolve humility and inflate the ego. Lot started to think he was a big shot too. And as my Rabbi put it, “You aren’t going to learn anything from Einstein if you think you’re smarter than Einstein.” It’s at that point Avraham realizes he can’t get through to Lot anymore.
Being There Without Being There
But that’s not the end of the story. A few years later a war breaks out. Generally referred to as “The 5 kings verses the 4 kings.” I guess there hadn’t been many wars yet so they could get lazy with the naming. It’s kinda the WWII of the ancient world and with two of the kings being from Sodom and Gomorra, Lot finds himself smack in the middle of it.
Avraham manages to get 318 soldiers together and they go to fight insurmountable odds. We’re talking your paint ball team versus all branches of the US Military. But sure enough, Avraham doesn’t just survive, doesn’t just rescue Lot, he pretty much single handedly defeats the more powerful 4 kings.
After all that, the horror of warfare, getting kidnapped, then finally rescue, what does Lot do? He returns to live in Sodom. And Avraham doesn’t even try to convince him to come back. According to Rambam’s count of Avraham’s famous 10 Tests, fighting this war to save Lot was test #4. If you pass one of the biggest tests of your life and miraculously survive certain doom, wouldn’t that be prime time to bring Lot back to the fold? I mean Avraham literally went to war for him.
Relationships are Hard
If you go back to when Avraham and Lot started fighting, Avraham says the “If you go left, I shall place myself on your right,” line. Rashi makes a comment on it (Bereishis 13:8) saying it really means, “Wherever you settle I will not go far from you and I will stand by you for protection and assistance.” It’s here, despite what has transpired, Avraham makes the commitment to be there for in nephew in anyway he could, even if that limited to emergency situations.
The truth is you can’t change anyone, nor should you try. What you can do is have genuine concern. Take an interest in that person’s life. Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People teaches that the biggest desire for a person is to feel important; learn their name, remember their birthday, treat everyone with dignity. But by actually valuing them as important and not just treating them as such, that’s how you build a real relationship, free from agenda.
But what do you do when you realize the person isn’t capable of change or simply refuses to? Perhaps the relationship is a difficult one, or worse, an abusive or toxic one? What if after each encounter you feel damaged or in a less stable place. What do you do then?
This is what Avraham and Lot’s relationship answers. At that point, the better option may be to give that person space. Let it lie. And though it may appear that Avraham is giving up on Lot, when things get bad, Avraham is right there when Lot needs him. The lesson being that though you may not be able to reach a person, being there for them in their hour of need is what really matters.
That’s the difference between Noah and Avraham. When Noah gave up on trying to influence people, he shut himself in an Ark when they needed him. Avraham on the other hand went to hell and back to save the person he couldn’t reach. That’s the quality the progenitor of the Jewish people needed to have.