This Week’s Torah Portion: What Are Jews Learning at Synagogue Today? (Part 5)

The midrash (Bëréshith Rabba LI, 6) reveals just how well Lot knew it by noting that he was sitting at the city gate. The city gate was a very important place in the ancient Middle East, for it was where justice was dispensed, even what passed for justice in Sodom (cf., multa inter alia, Deuteronomy VI, 8 and XVII, 5; Ruth IV, 1-4; and Proverbs XXXI, 29), and Lot had just been appointed the city judge.

The end of the story is briefly told. Warned by the angels of Sodom’s imminent destruction, Lot was able to persuade his wife and two of his daughters to flee with him. His sons-in-law took the warning as a joke (XIX, 14), and Lot’s sons (ibid., 12, Ramban ad loc.) evidently followed their lead. At that, Lot’s wife was unable to follow the angels’ instructions even to save her own life. She insisted on turning and looking back at her doomed home, and became a pillar of salt (ibid., 26; Rashi cites the midrash that this was in consequence of her refusal to give a little salt to her guests: “Even this evil custom [i.e., hospitality] you come to institute in this place,” she complained).

Lot and his daughters ended up sheltering in a cave. The daughters, convinced that the world had ended, proceeded to try to re-establish the human race with their father.

The Ramban attributes pious motives to them, but the fact that the older and more experienced of the sisters felt the need to get their father drunk reveals it for the tawdry act it was. One can feel some sympathy for Lot -- after all, he had just lost his wife, his sons, and his married daughters -- but the fact that he so readily found solace in a bottle speaks volumes.

We can conclude from the foregoing that Lot was a “minor” tzaddiq in a class with Chanoch and Noach (cf. Rashi on Genesis V.2 and VI, 9). The only reason that Lot is not called a tzaddiq by the Torah is that, unlike the first two, he lived in the shadow of a genuine spiritual giant, Avram. As long as he remained closely attached to his mentor and teacher, he remained all right, as the Radaq implies.

But Lot was not properly subordinate to Avram. Something in him led him to believe in his own judgment beyond the limits suitable to his status.

He did not hold his followers, his shepherds, to the same uncompromisingly high standards demanded by his mentor. He presumably made excuses for them, granting that allowances had to be made for their previous irreligious upbringing. In that light, their lower moral standards seemed to him “good enough.” The result was that the two camps became increasingly estranged, until, as the Ha‘améq Davar points out, the chillul Ha-Shem necessitated a real break between them.

Lot did not learn even from this; he went to Sodom, failing to see in Avram’s avoidance any guide to his own conduct. Doubtless, Lot reasoned that by integrating himself into their community and sharing their lives he could influence them to the good. The Sëdomim, for their part, flattered him, appointing him to a high-sounding position which in the end was nothing but an empty title.

As a result, far from inspiring the Sëdomim to repent, the Sëdomi spirit infected him and his, and he lost almost all he had. The only thing which spared him from their fate, as we learn in XIX, 29, was his connection to Avram.

“The deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign to their descendants,” the Ramban famously says of the stories in Genesis. We have seen this story played out many times in recent history. It begins when certain people, many of them with some claim to Torah scholarship, allow their own judgment inappropriately free rein, which causes them to compromise, sometimes out of pure motives. If they heed the warning of the Gëdolei Torah, their own teachers and mentors, and withdraw from the precipice, all remains in order.

If not, the story of Lot is a cautionary tale of where they might end up.