This Week’s Torah Portion: What Are Jews Learning at Synagogue Today? (Part 5)
This week’s parasha enables us to examine the character of another putative tzaddiq, Lot -- Avraham’s nephew.
At first blush, this assessment may seem strange; Lot is not usually regarded as a tzaddiq. Yet, the great 12th-13th century Rabbi David Qimhi (known by his initials as Radaq) points out that Genesis XII, 5 includes Lot with Avram and Sarai among the “they” in “ ... and the souls which they made in Charan.” He explains that Lot was a valued and trusted assistant of Avram’s in his work. For this reason, the Torah mentions him by name amongst the émigrés from Charan.
The first sign that something is not altogether right comes a bit later (XIII, 7):
And there was strife between the shepherds of Avram’s flock and the shepherds of Lot’s flock, and the Canaanite and the Përizzi were dwelling then in the land.
Rashi cites the midrash to tell us how the quarrel had arisen:
Since Lot’s shepherds were bad, and used to herd their animals in others’ fields, Avram’s shepherds would rebuke them concerning the theft, and they would say, the country has been given to Avram and he has no heir, Lot is his heir, so it is not theft. And the verse reads, “And the Canaanite”, etc., [because] Avram had not yet taken possession of it.
The 19th century Rabbi Naftali Tzëvi Yëhuda Berlin, in his Ha‘améq Davar, notes that the Canaanite presence in the land lent an aspect of chillul Ha-Shem, “desecration of G-d’s name,” to the quarrel in that Avram’s reputation for greatness and holiness had already gone before him. Such a public dispute within his family circle was intolerable. The result, the Torah tells us, was that they split up. Lot chose for himself the very fertile southern Jordan valley, settling in the city of Sodom.
There is a subtle hint of something more to the split in the wording of v. 11:
And Lot went from Qedem, and they parted from one another.
The word qedem is usually translated “east,” but as the Ha‘améq Davar notes, since Sodom lay in the southeastern corner, that meaning hardly makes sense. Therefore, he follows Onqëlos’ Aramaic paraphrase, interpreting it to mean miQadmono shel ‘Olam, “from the One Who preceded the universe.” This indicates that there was a spiritual separation as well as a physical one when Lot departed.
Our parasha picks up Lot’s story after some time has passed. Two of the angels who visit at the very beginning of the parasha continue on to Sodom. One of them, as Rashi tells, has the task of destroying the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The other has the task of rescuing Lot from the destruction. It is interesting to compare the account of how Lot receives these messengers with the one of how Avram received them in the previous chapter.
We find Lot sitting at the city gate (XIX, 1) much as Avram sat at the entrance of his tent (XVIII, 1). Lot goes to greet the strangers and offer them hospitality, remonstrating with them until they accept (XIX, 2-3), as indeed did Avram (XVIII,2-5). Lot prepares an elaborate meal for them, a mishteh, much as Avram did (XVIII, 6-8).
It would seem that Lot has been little affected by the insalubrious surroundings of a city so evil that its destruction has been Divinely decreed. But in fact, there are many symptoms here of a marked deterioration.
When the angels visit Avram, they are called anashim, “men,” in part, as Rashi explains, “because [Avram’s] power was great, and there were [angels] around him as frequently as men.” Lot did not entertain such heavenly visitors as a rule; hence they are called mal’achim, “angels.”
Avram’s welcome to them differed as well, as the 16th century Italian Rabbi ‘Ovadya Sforno notes. A mishteh is a feast that centers on drinking, and as we shall see, Lot was a lover of the grape. Avram’s meal, while elaborate, was a sober one. The only time that Avram is recorded as making a mishteh was on the occasion of the weaning of his son Yitzchaq, which, as Sforno explains, was due to the attendance of many kings and nobles who expected that sort of entertainment.
We also learn that Lot was afraid of his neighbors. Rashi explains the unusual word suru (“turn away”) which Lot uses to invite the angels to mean “come by a circuitous route,” lest the neighbors discover that he was offering hospitality.
They did find out, and besieged Lot’s house. They demanded that he turn over the strangers to them.
The nature of their proposed attentions becomes apparent with another symptom of Lot’s debasement -- he tries to protect the guests by offering the mob his virginal daughters in their place (XIX, 8, Rashi ad loc.),
The Talmud and midrashim supply many colorful details concerning the character of the Sëdomim, the people of Sodom, who deliberately set out to violate every single tradition received from Noach (cf. Sanhedrin 109a and Yërushalmi Sanhedrin X, 1). The midrash describes at length their twisted business practices and warped notions of justice. Their sexual immorality is proverbial to this day, as evidenced by the English word “sodomy.”
All of this, Lot knew; it was why he was afraid of his neighbors.