A Turbulent Relationship
Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
Avraham’s ties to Lot trace far back in the Torah’s historical narrative, as his nephew joined him through the journey from Haran to the Land of Israel. Up until the section of Lech Lecha, there is no sense at all of any simmering tensions between them. Yet trouble begins to brew, with outright fighting taking place between the shepherds of Avraham and those of Lot. Avraham, sensing the dissolution of their relationship, suggests to Lot to part ways. Lot surveys the land and chooses to move to Sodom. The Torah explains (Bereishit 13:12-15):
“Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, and he pitched his tents until Sodom. And the people of Sodom were very evil and sinful against the Lord. And the Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, "Please raise your eyes and see, from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward. For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity.”
The above is an extremely quick succession of verses, from the split to the identification of the people of Sodom as sinners to a prophecy. Rashi notes this, observing the sudden prophecy received by Avraham (ibid 14):
“As long as the wicked man was with him (Avraham), the Divine speech withdrew from him…”
What an astonishing commentary by Rashi! Granted, Lot chose to live in Sodom, reflecting poor judgment. However, if indeed he was “wicked”, how could Avraham have stuck with him for such an extensive period of time?
There is a Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 41:8) that takes up this very issue, where a fascinating debate emerges. It appears that God was angry with Avraham concerning Lot. According to the first opinion, this anger was focused on a failure of Avraham to ensure Lot would “cling” to God. Avraham focused on introducing the idea of God to so many new people in the world. Yet, when it came to Lot, he was unable to keep him focused on God. The other opinion is even more derisive of Avraham’s judgment. Avraham maintained a close relationship with Lot as he would be the future inheritor of the Land of Israel. God expresses anger at this assumption by Avraham. Any stranger ultimately could do just as good of a job in inheriting the land as Lot; why would Avraham then consider Lot the appropriate recipient of this promise?
While there is no clear indication in the text of the Torah that Avraham failed in any of these aspects, the Sages seem to indicate a serious breach in judgment on the part of Avraham. What was Avraham’s supposed error here?
A simple supposition here would be that the breakup between Avraham and Lot was more than simply two relatives having a familial spat. Rather, this split was in fact an ideological breakup, as these two important people chose different paths in life. Avraham was committed to his vision of bringing the true idea of God to the world, as well as being the initiator of the Jewish people. Lot chose otherwise, evidenced by his willingness to live amongst the people of Sodom. In essence, Lot’s decision was a rejection of Avraham’s ideology, and it appears Avraham missed the signs, so to speak.
The first criticism leveled against Avraham reveals an intriguing side to his personality. Lot’s decision to follow Avraham, to stick by his side, as he journeyed through the Land of Israel reflected an attachment to his outlook. Avraham’s focus was on those who had no exposure to the great ideas he developed. Due to his ahavas Hashem, his love of God, he sought to teach as many as possible about the truth of the Creator. He wanted to introduce an ethical norm for mankind. It is possible that with all this, he overestimated Lot. He had every reason to assume that Lot naturally was on board with this ideology. Unfortunately, Lot was not a partner, and Avraham’s outward focus led him to miss the warning signs. Indeed, it would be a normative assumption to make that Lot was on board with what Avraham was teaching. His attachment to Avraham should have meant a natural osmosis of concepts. Avraham therefore assumed Lot was actually on a much higher level then he actually was.
The second option is complex, as the criticism leveled at Avraham is seemingly more severe. The Redak, in commenting on this section, maintains that the prophecy given to Avraham took place while Lot was still with Avraham. God reinforces the concept that Avraham and his children would be the inheritors of the Land of Israel. Avraham was old at this time, and it would be unreasonable to assume he would have any children. He therefore looked to Lot as the person of the future. The prophecy sought to reorient Avraham’s thinking to having a child of his own.
In a similar fashion, this Midrash could be pointing to Avraham’s overlooking of Lot’s weaknesses. According to this opinion, Avraham recognized Lot’s issues. He also concluded that, without a son, the only logical inheritor to the Land of Israel would be Lot. Maybe, then, the necessity of strict adherence to the ideology was something the “land” would not require. The family of Avraham would function as caretakers over the land, and the fluctuations of religious purity would not affect the overall relationship between the two. The Midrash is pointing out the error in Avraham’s consideration. For the Land of Israel to function properly, it requires people living there who reflect the ideology of God. It is a symbiotic relationship, the land (through commandments and the presence of the nation) helping to bring those who live there to a higher plane of perfection. Yet in order for this to emerge, the people living there must already be firmly rooted in the appropriate outlook. Lot, it would appear, did not possess this, leading to God’s anger at Avraham.
This brings us back to Rashi’s assessment of Lot as being “wicked”. It is hard to imagine that Lot was someone objectively evil, as Avraham could never consider such a person to be part of his ideological entourage. With the assistance of the Midrash, we can understand that in fact Lot had some flaws, and those flaws had a detrimental effect on Avraham. Whether it was Avraham’s overestimation of Lot’s character, or his willingness to tolerate his errors for the sake of the promise made by God, someone on the level of Avraham would be negatively affected by someone such as Lot. He was wicked, relative to Avraham’s framework, and this caused a small rift between Avraham and God. We see from this Midrash that Avraham’s relationship with Lot was initially founded on similar ideological outlooks. Ultimately, it was the cause of their parting ways, and for Avraham, this led to a return to his lofty stature before God.