Between Acquisitive Ethnocentrism and Morality
Abraham and his nephew Lot began their journey together, as it is written: And
went with him (Bereishit 12:4). We can understand from their walking together
that at the beginning of his road Lot joined
Abraham and linked his fate and goals to the fate of his uncle, who walked
following God's command from his country and homeland to an unknown land.
The Torah tells us very little about Lot and to what extent he accepted the vision which led Abraham to be willing to leave all that was familiar and build a new culture, a culture of faith and loving-kindness.
Lot accompanied Abraham on his journey from Haran to the Land of Canaan, he apparently joined Abraham when he traveled to Egypt following the famine in Canaan and returned with Abraham to Canaan, when both had accumulated great wealth (Bereishit 13:2-5).
Abraham had, so to speak, an additional Individual accompanying him on his journey. At each stop along the way, a connection was established between Abraham and God. Sometimes God revealed Himself to Abraham, and other times Abraham built an altar to the Lord who appears to him. God punished Pharaoh, who took Sarai, Abraham's wife-sister, thus indirectly prompting Abraham's return to
Lot did not share in Abraham's connection with
A radical change takes place in the relationship between Abraham and Lot upon their return to
(Genesis 13:6-12). This change is consummated when they separate and each goes
his own way. Upon a first reading, it simply appears that overcrowded
conditions prevented Abraham and Lot from
dwelling near each other.
There is a well-known drasha on the dictum from Pirkei Avot 5:5, "And no man ever told his fellow, 'It is too crowded for me to sleep in Jerusalem.'" The drasha says that it was certainly crowded in Jerusalem, but no one ever complained about it. We can understand the following verse in the same spirit: And the land did not bear them to dwell together, for their possessions were many, and they could not dwell together (Bereishit 13:6). The repeated statement that they could not dwell together hints at difficulties of coexistence that were not merely technical in nature.
What, then, is the root of this inability to dwell together?
Rashi (13:7), following the Sages in Bereishit Rabbah, examines the tension between the herdsmen of Abraham and those of
Lot in a different light:
And there was a quarrel - because
Lot's shepherds were wicked men and grazed their cattle
in other people's fields. Abraham's shepherds rebuked them for this act of
robbery, but they replied, "The land has been given to Abram, and since he
has no son as heir, Lot will be his heir - consequently
this is not robbery." Scripture, however, states: The Canaanite and the
Perizzite dwelt then in the land, so that Abram was not yet entitled to
According to Rashi, the disagreement between Abram's herdsmen (who apparently accepted Abram's values and followed his instructions) and
herdsmen was concerned with values.
Two different perspectives on God's promise emerge here. Abraham's perspective is influenced by his constant, direct communication with God; that very connection enables him to see the Other.
In contrast to
Abraham and his herdsmen comprehend the importance of distinguishing between God's
promise and the existing reality. They also understand that moral
considerations are never overridden by God's promise, since Abraham's God is the
Judge of the whole earth and it could not be that He would not do
justice. It is this world view which
explains Abraham's negotiations with God regarding the minimum number of
righteous people needed to save Sodom.
While Abraham felt gratitude towards God for the promise granted to him, he was also profoundly anxious about the realization of this promise.
When Abraham reached Elon Moreh, God revealed Himself to him and promised him that He would give his descendents the
. Abraham responded by building an
altar to the Lord who appeared to him. Rashi, following the Midrash,
provides this commentary: "for the good tidings that he would have
children, and for the good tidings that they would possess the land of Canaan " (Rashi Bereishit 12:7).
Abraham's act of building an altar is thus a religious response, an expression
of gratitude. Land of Israel
The next verse (12:8) mentions that Abraham builds another altar. Here Rashi again borrows a midrashic idea:
And he built there an altar - He perceived through the gift of prophecy that his descendents would stumble there through Achan's transgression: therefore he prayed for them there.
Abraham understands that in spite of God's promise, his children might misinterpret the moral significance of the promise and be dragged down. They might commit undesirable acts as a result of impulses stimulated by the act of conquering the land (Achan). The second altar that Abraham builds expresses this anxiety and represents both the hope and prayer that in the end his descendents will be worthy of the promise (Achan's transgression during the conquest of the land did indeed occur between Beth-El and HaAi).
When the land was promised once more to Abraham in the Pact of the Cut Pieces [Brit ben HaBetarim], Abraham asks, how will I know that I will inherit it? (Bereishit 15:8). The commentators Rabbi Ovadiah from Solfranu ("Seforno") and RaMBaN provide us with their interpretations. Seforno (15:8) writes:
How will I know? Perhaps my children will sin and not merit to inherit it.
RaMBaN (15:7) writes:
…and so he asked, how will I know that I will inherit it? This is not like the question, What is the sign? (II Kings 20:8). And the Holy One, blessed be He, did not act as He did regarding the other signs by showing him a sign or a miracle or something wondrous. Rather, He asked Abraham to know with true knowledge that he would inherit it, and that neither he nor his descendents would commit a sin preventing this from happening, and that the Canaanites would not repent, making applicable to them the prophecy: At one instant I may speak about plucking up, breaking down, or destroying a nation. If, however, that nation turns from its evil ways because of my words against it, I repent of the evil I thought of inflicting upon it (Jeremiah 18:7-8). The Holy One, blessed be He, made a pact with him that he would inherit it in any event.
Thus, Abraham is afraid that the realization of the promise will depend on the actions of his children and therefore he is very concerned. The promise is strengthened by the establishment of a covenant which is reciprocal in nature. Thus, Rashi (17:7-8) writes:
And I will establish My covenant - And what is this Covenant? To be a God unto you.
For an everlasting possession - and there I will be your God.
That is, the promise made because of the covenant is not a guarantee or deed of registry. The existence of the covenant between God and Abraham's descendents is conditional on being a God unto you. True, there is a lasting imprint of the covenant passed down from generation to generation through the ritual of circumcision, which is "The Covenant of Our Father Abraham." However, the possession which is everlasting in the spiritual realm is not a prize but rather an anchor in reality enabling the fulfillment of the spiritual and moral vision - there I will be your God.
from the East [mikedem]: he
distanced himself from the Ancient One [mikadmono] of the world. He
said, “I care neither for Abram nor for his God.
The absence of Abraham's God - the judge of all the land and the God of loving-kindness - from Lot's journey, is an essential element in
Lot's concrete, absolute,
and aggressive understanding of God's promise.
Abraham is able to distinguish between the promise he believes in, the promise given as part of a covenant, and the practical and moral possibilities for the realization of that promise. Abraham is very anxious about the potential dangers involved in transforming the promise into reality through force and harm to others.
Abraham's only suggestion for dealing with the conflict is, Please separate yourself from me. Abraham probably understood that the land could not support them to dwell together. The deep ideological conflict between the two views would not enable the continuation of their journey together. These differences could even deteriorate into a state of civil war resulting in bloodshed. Therefore, the separation enabled each of them to choose the path they believed in. This separation enables us to examine the potential results of the different paths chosen by
Lot and Abraham:
At the end of the story Lot reaches
Sodom, a city
full of evil and sinful inhabitants and he needs Abraham's help to save him.
The entire land, including that of Lot, was
promised to Abraham, who upheld the conditions of the covenant.
This story enables us to make a deep and profound examination of the distinction made by people of faith between God's promise and concrete reality, which requires consideration of moral values as an important element in the promise. Peaceful coexistence may be impossible between "Abram's herdsmen" and "Lot's herdsmen," and so, in order to avoid a bloody conflict (as in the quarrel between Cain and Abel, to which the Midrash assigns a moral character), the two sides should peacefully separate or find an alternate way to peacefully settle the conflict, allowing room for differing opinions and respecting democratic decisions. Unfortunately, the events in Kikar Rabin (then Kikar Malkhei Yisrael) of Motza'ei Shabbat Parashat Lekh Lekha 5756 demonstrate this all too clearly. Has Israeli society learned anything since that gloomy night?
Pinhas Leiser, editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist.