Abraham’s Intelligence


Moshe Ben-Chaim


Genesis 13:5-9 reads:


“And also to Lote who traveled with Abraham, (he) had sheep, and cattle and tents. And the land could not sustain them (Abraham and Lote) to dwell together, for their possessions were great, and they could not dwell together. And there was a dispute between the shepherds of the flocks of Abraham, and between the shepherds of the flocks of Lote, and the Canaanite and the Prizzi then dwelled in the land. And Abraham said to Lote, ‘let there please not be no argument between me and between you, and between my shepherds and between your shepherds, for men of brotherhood are we. Is not the entire land before you? Separate please from before me; if you move leftwards, I will go to the right, and if you move rightwards, I will go to the left.”


We are struck with the question as to why G-d deemed this incident worthy of inclusion in His Torah. We must conclude that there are essential lessons we must derive from Abraham’s behavior. It is evident that G-d wishes that mankind study Abraham’s actions and moral perfections, otherwise, this account would not be included in the Torah. We must also be mindful that Abraham had not Torah from which to exemplify a learned moral code. Abraham acted based solely on his conclusion, the result of his independent thinking. We learn thereby, that man has the innate capacity to arrive at truths – i.e., G-d’s desired human morality – by using his mind alone. Abraham displayed such ability. We must also ask why verse 7 states, “and the Canaanite and the Prizzi then dwelled in the land”.


What was the dispute between the two sets of shepherds? Rashi comments as follows:


“For the shepherds of Lote were wicked, and grazed their flocks in other fields (not belonging to them), and Abraham’s shepherds rebuked them for stealing. And they (Lote’s shepherds) replied, ‘the land was given to Abraham, and to him, he has no inheritors, and Lote inherits from him, and this is not stealing. (And the verse states that the Canaanite and the Prizzi dwelled in the land, [meaning] Abraham had not yet merited the land as of yet.)” 


We learn that Abraham and Lote had far too many animals that the land they dwelled on should provide for all of their flock and herds. Lote’s shepherds resolved the problem by grazing in other people’s pastures. This compensated for what their own fields lacked. As Rash states at the end of his commentary above, Lote’s shepherds justified their act, refuting Abraham’s shepherds accusation of stealing, by claiming, “the land is not stolen, but what Abraham is to rightfully inherit by G-d’s oath, and Lote rightfully inherits Abraham. Therefore, the land is truly Lote’s and we are not stealing.” But Abraham did not yet inherit the land of Canaan, as Rashi states, and as the verse indicates. Thus, Lote’s shepherds were in fact robbers. Abraham’s shepherds were correct.


We learn that Abraham had a great effect on his shepherds; they too followed in Abraham’s moral perfections and understood that stealing is a crime. Abraham’s shepherds also understood that one must rebuke another who acts immorally. Conversely, Lote’s shepherds were not Abraham’s adherents, and sought financial gain illegally, justifying their robbery with their faulty argument. Lote too was attracted to Sodom, a city of immorality: “The apple falls not far from the tree.” Although dwelling together, and although a close relative and neighbor of Abraham, Lote and his shepherds both failed to adhere to Abraham’s teachings. They were moved more by emotional desires, than by rational thought and moral dictates.


Abraham was not simply a great thinker, abandoning idolatry and rising to such perfection that G-d communicated with him, but Abraham’s perfection permeated his entire being; all of his actions were an expression of the refined and perfected truths he learned on his own. What exactly was the problem in Abraham’s mind, and how did Abraham decide to resolve the problem?


Abraham did not take the approach of his shepherds. This already proved futile. Abraham made two statements: 1) we must not contend with each other as we are brothers, and 2) “you choose your desired land first, and I will, take what is left.” What was Abraham’s wisdom, and perfection? Why did Abraham feel this specific argument would appeal to Lote?


What do we know about Lote, that we may appreciate Abraham’s plan? We know that Lote’s shepherds were under Lote’s directives. Thus, Lote must have permitted his shepherds to graze in alien fields. Abraham knew this too. Therefore, he directed his arguments to Lote, and not only the shepherds.


Perhaps Abraham’s plan was to appeal to the very financial desire that Lote expressed by directing his shepherds to graze elsewhere. Allowing Lote the “choice”, appealed to Lote’s desire for financial gain and freedom. Had Abraham selected a land first, this would infringe on Lote’s ‘free expression’ of his desire. Additionally, Lote might be suspect that Abraham took the better portion; defeating the purpose Abraham set out to achieve. Being able to select his choice land, Lote was positioned, by Abraham’s ingenuity, to satisfy his desire for monetary gain, and without any emotional compromise. Abraham gave Lote free expression of his financial drive, an offer Abraham knew Lote could not refuse (while also eliminating Lote’s continued robbery).


But Abraham did not wish to have his rebuke remain focused on Lote, for this might cause Lote to dismiss Abraham’s words. To allow Lote some latitude, and substantiating his words in reality, Abraham then said, “and there shall also be no argument between my shepherds and yours.”  Abraham successfully penetrated Lote with his rebuke of “Lote’s” immorality without being overly harsh. Amazingly, our Torah follows Abraham’s morality, and states, “Certainly rebuke your people, and do not carry on it a sin.” (Lev. 19:17) Rabbi Reuven Mann once expounded, “the Torah demands rebuke, but that it should be performed in a manner where one does not outlet his ego in doing so. When rebuking another, one may fall prey to his egotistical drives, as he is now the “superior” in this dialogue. But not only in the area of ego is there a chance to fall prey, but also in the area of the success of one’s goal. Here, Abraham was careful to allow Lote the necessary latitude so his arguments would be heeded, that Lote would allow Abrahams’ words to resonate within himself, without a defensive dismissal.


My friend David Bakash suggested, Abraham allowed Lote to select his choice land first, as this accomplished two more goals; 1) Abraham performed an act of generosity, and 2) he gave face to Lote. “Following” the Sinaic dictate stated by Rabbi Mann, Abraham did not follow any instinctual drives, but he also gave respect to Lote. He allowed Lote to exit the rebuke with self-respect, offering Lote the first choice


Lastly, why would an argument favoring “brotherhood” appeal to Lote? Why was such an argument necessary at all, if Abraham subsequently offered Lote advice, which appealed to his financial concerns? Wouldn’t this latter, financial suggestion suffice, without Abraham making recourse to a “brotherhood” argument?


To begin, why does Abraham say there should be no argument between ‘him and Lote’, and only afterwards, “between both of their shepherds”? The argument was in fact, only among the shepherds! But we see that Abraham was indicating to Lote that he knew from whom the shepherds’ immorality originated: it was from Lote. Therefore, Abraham addresses Lote first, and not the shepherds: there should be no argument between the two of them. (The shepherds’ argument was only an expression of their masters’ morality differences.) Abraham makes it clear to Lote that he knew that Lote was at fault. Merely allowing Lote the opportunity to remove his hands from theft by offering another parcel of land was not Abraham’s objective. That would only address the practicality of stealing, but not Lote’s imperfection. Abraham wished to elevate Lote’s internal perfection, not simply addressing external practicality.


Abraham knew the argument of the shepherds, and suspected these were in fact the words of Lote: Lote justified robbery. Therefore, an abstract argument against robbery would again fail. What did Abraham achieve by mentioning brotherhood? What new facet of Lote’s personality was to be reached?


Brotherhood means there exists some similarity between brothers. I would suggest that Abraham was pitting himself against Lote, in Lote’s mind. By referring to “brothers”, Abraham hoped that Lote would create a comparison in his mind between himself and Abraham. Perhaps such a comparison would highlight to Lote, the stark contrast and differences which existed between himself and Abraham, although brothers. Such a comparison may cause Lote to feel inadequate, as he will invariably sense that Abraham was morally superior by not grazing in other peoples’ lands. Perhaps Abraham’s plan was not to approach Lote with abstract morals, but to impose on him a feeling if inadequacy, humbling his ego, and awakening in Lote a desire to compensate his shortcoming.


Teaching abstract truths is the choicest method for helping one become more perfected. For in this fashion, man’s highest element – his intellect – is what is affected. But if a person cannot be reached through his mind, alternate methods must be used. Hopefully, by appealing to one’s emotions, he is now placed back on the track can lead him to ultimately realize truths, living based on intelligence, and not emotions. “Im lo l’shma, ba l’shma”, “if one does not come to Torah truths out of a sincere desire for them, he will eventuate there.” Based on this principle, we may initially harness emotional methods to help people eventually arrive at a true desire for Torah study and performance. Moses too used this method when enticing Yisro to remain with the Jews, as he offered him a leadership role.