The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Chapter 13 in our current weekly Torah portion describes Abraham's disengagement from Lot. According to the literal [peshat] interpretation of the text, the background to this development is clear and Abraham's voluntary parting from Lot is understandable and even justifiable: both Abraham and Lot have become quite wealthy, their flocks have become numerous, the grazing lands are no longer large enough to meet the needs of Abraham and Lot, and the other nations inhabiting the Land of Canaan ("While the Canaanites and Perizites were still resident in the Land" - v. 7) are also in need of grazing grounds for their own animals. It is not surprising that disputes broke out between the shepherds of Abraham and Lot; as the Torah itself informs us, "the [grazing] land was insufficient for the two of them because they had amassed considerable property and were thus unable to live in close proximity to one another." (v. 6). Disputes between shepherds over grazing land are a familiar phenomenon that can be seen in our era as well. Fearing that the conflicts between the shepherds could disrupt the harmony within his own family ("Let there be no arguments between the two of us or between our shepherds, because, after all, we are brothers" - v. 8), Abraham suggests a compromise solution: "Let us go our separate ways" (v. 9). Immediately agreeing to Abraham's proposal, Lot chooses the Jordan plain "because it had an abundant water supply" (v. 10). Peace and order are restored: "Abraham settled in the Land of Canaan, while Lot took up residence among the cities of the plain" (v. 12). The above reasons for the separation are the explicit ones that are given to us by the text and provide the basis for the literal interpretations offered by Nahmanides (Ramban), Seforno, and others.
Nonetheless, one cannot help but register surprise at Abraham's decision. Instead of trying to defuse the explosive situation, Abraham unhesitatingly proposes to Lot: "Let us go our separate ways"! Why does an individual like Abraham who defines his mission on earth as "invoking (i.e. publicizing the name of God" - that is, attracting people to the new faith - lose no time in severing links with his nephew because of economic problems? After all, Lot abandoned his own homeland and the home of his grandfather in Haran to join the party of his uncle Abraham who, following God's commandment, began his wanderings "among nations and kingdoms" in his journey towards an unknown land (see Nahmanides' commentary on the words "to the land that I will show you" in Genesis xii:1). Yet are we to understand that Abraham decides to end this splendid partnership because his shepherds and those of Lot have had a few arguments? Indeed, some commentators have voiced harsh criticism with regard to Abraham's move. For example: "Rabbi Yehuda states: 'Anger was directed towards our patriarch Abraham when Lot, his nephew, left him. God said: 'He befriends everyone, but he abandons Lot, who is his own flesh and blood!'"
As opposed to these straightforward and logical literal interpretations, the midrashic (homiletic) explanation of the parting of Abraham and Lot is quite different:
"An ongoing dispute arose" - this was because Lot's shepherds were wicked persons and sent their flocks to graze in the fields of others. When Abram's shepherds rebuked them for this thievery, Lot's shepherds responded, "The Land has been given to Abram, whose sole heir is Lot; thus, we are only taking what is rightfully ours." Yet the Torah comments: "While the Canaanites and Perizites were still resident in the Land". (See Rashi, who bases himself on Bereshit Raba 41:6; see also the more extensive commentary in Pesikta Rabati 3.)
The above midrash seems to ignore the literal interpretation of the Biblical text, and it is our right (if not our duty) as students of the Torah to ask: From where does the midrash derive its basis for such an explication?
Let us again take a close look at the initial verses of our Torah portion. Two statements succinctly depict how Lot fits in with Abraham's camp. In verse 4, we read, "Abram set forth,and Lot accompanied him". From this verse, we can learn that it was Lot who took the initiative to join Abraham, and, furthermore, we can conclude that, in deciding to accompany his uncle, Lot was expressing an identification with Abraham's spiritual orientation. However, the following verse suggests a somewhat different view: "Abram took his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot with him." As suggested by this verse, it was Abraham who recruited Lot. How are we to understand the seeming lack of clarity created by these two conflicting statements? God's commandment to Abraham is formulated as follows: "Go forth from your land . . . ." (xii: 1), literally, "Go forth for your own sake from your land . . . ." What is the significance of the extra phrase in the verse's literal meaning, "for your own sake"? According to Cassuto, "These words suggest that Abraham is setting forth all alone and that he is cutting himself off from the mainstream of society and from his familiar surroundings.
A parallel situation can be found in the opening verses of the 'Sacrifice of Isaac' episode (Genesis xxii:2) where God commands Abraham to carry out the task by himself ("go forth for your own sake"). Abraham is to set forth alone, as proof of his self-discipline and complete devotion to God" (M.D. Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham [Jerusalem, 5719-1958/59], pp. 211-212); see also the commentary of Ha'amek Davar on this text). In his compliance with God's command that he set forth on his own, Abraham is faced with a difficult dilemma: How to obey the divine command and yet, at the same time, relate to the initiative of Lot, who has expressed the desire to join him on his journey to the promised land? Should Lot be considered a part of Terah's family, from whom Abraham has been commanded by God to disassociate himself? If so, Lot's request should be denied. Or else, perhaps the inclusion of Lot, Abraham's orphaned nephew, could be viewed as an act of kindness that would turn Lot into an integral part of Abraham's family. At first glance, Abraham's decision to accept Lot's request has a poignant emotional-family aspect, as the text indicates: "Abram took . . . his brother's son, Lot, with him." The Biblical text apparently takes pains to stress the family links, because the phrasing of Lot's position, "his brother's son," altogether superfluous.
Below the surface of the text, one senses Abraham's inner struggle. While Sarai is depicted as "being a barren woman who has never given birth" (Gen. xi:30), God has promised Abraham: "I will turn you into a great nation" (xii: 2). In view of the fact that Sarai is barren, how can this wonderful divine promise ever be fulfilled? Is it possible that the promise refers to Lot and that Lot's descendants will become the "great nation" destined to follow in Abraham's footsteps? Acting on his intuition, Abraham decides to take Lot with him. At first, Abraham has no reason to regret his decision, because Lot acts as an integral part of the patriarch's household. However, after a short while, the uncle-nephew relationship loses its harmony.
On returning from Egypt, both individuals have become wealthy, and the depiction of the journey back from Egypt to Canaan already hints at the spiritual distance that has developed between Abraham and his nephew. To illustrate this point, let us briefly compare two verses that depict the journeys made by Abraham's camp:
Gen. xii:5 (from Haran to Canaan) Gen xiii:1 (from Egypt to Canaan) --------------------------------- --------------------------------------------- Abram took Abram left Eypt 1) his wife Sarai 1) together with his wife 2) and his nephew Lot with him 2) and all that belonged to him 3) and all the property they had 3) and Lot accompanied amassed... him....
In the journey, from Haran to Canaan, Abraham's camp is unified and includes both Lot and his property. In the second journey, from Egypt to Canaan, Abraham's camp includes his wife and "all that belonged to him", while Lot, who continues to accompany Abraham, no longer fits into the category "all that belonged to him", as was the case in the first journey. The depiction of the two individuals' prosperity clearly indicates that the property of the one is unambiguously separate from the other's: "Abraham has an abundance of animals, silver and gold (xiii: 2), while "Lot, who had joined Abraham's camp, also had sheep, cattle and tents" (ibid.: 5). Although, on the surface, this separation of property does not necessarily reflect separation in emotional terms or in terms of religious faith, a close probe of the text reveals how prosperity influences Abraham and Lot respectively. True, Abraham has become "very" wealthy; however, on returning to the Land of Canaan, all his energies are focused on the attainment of a single goal: a return to the spiritual condition he enjoyed before his departure for Egypt. As the text indicates, "He journeyed from the Negev to Bethel and reached the place where his tent had been located, formerly... the site of the altar he had built there at first, and in that place Abram invoked the Lord by name" (ibid., vv. 3-4). Returning to his original location, where he once reached a sublime level of spirituality, Abraham energetically resumes his task on earth, namely, to spread the glory of God's name as widely as possible.
In contrast, after having informed us that Lot, "who had joined Abraham's camp", had become quite wealthy, the Biblical text goes on to tell us the immediate result of Lot's prosperity: "the [grazing] land was insufficient for the two of them because they had amassed considerable property and were thus unable to live in close proximity to one another." (xiii: 6). We should pay close attention to this verse, because, ostensibly, it seems to contain superfluous information. One possible way of interpreting the text can be phrased as follows: while, from the objective standpoint, "the [grazing] land was insufficient for the two of them", the conclusion - "[they] were thus unable to live in close proximity to one another" - reflects subjective considerations: Abraham and Lot were unable to live in close proximity to one another, because they did not wish to do so. Had they wished to live in the same area, they could easily have done so. Abraham senses that a major change has taken place in Lot's value system: as far as Lot's inner agenda is concerned, the desire to enhance his economic situation takes precedence over the desire to "spread the glory of God's name". This change in values naturally is passed on to Lot's shepherds, who are rebuked for their realignment of moral standards by Abraham's shepherds. While the criticism voiced by Abraham's shepherds provides the immediate cause, the underlying factor for the dispute between Abraham and Lot is the latter's ambition. This ambition is steadily increasing the distance between Lot and his uncle, who, despite his great wealth, continues to attach top priority to spiritual, rather than mundane, matters. When Abraham reaches the conclusion that, from the spiritual standpoint, close neighborly relations with Lot are no longer justified, he expresses the desire to part company with his nephew. It is under these circumstances that Lot relocates himself: "Lot traveled eastward" (ibid., v. 11). On the one hand, the Hebrew term "mikedem" can be interpreted as having a geographical connotation, that is, "eastward"; on the other hand, the word can also be translated in spiritual terms, as follows: "he distanced himself from the primeval creator of the world, saying, 'I am interested neither in Abraham nor in Abraham's God'" (Rashi, ibid.).
Furthermore, it appears that Abraham reaches yet another conclusion about his nephew and now realizes that Lot will not be the founder of the "great nation" referred to in God's promise to Abraham. Against this background, we can more easily understand the impact of the new revelation that God makes known to Abraham: "after Lot had departed" (ibid., v. 14), God informs Abraham, "I will see to it that your descendants will be like the dust of the earth" The reference is made to Abraham's direct descendants and not to his relatives, because "Abraham had previously thought that even his relatives could be considered his direct descendants". (Rabbi Yosef Bekhor Shor's commentary on the phrase "What will You grant me?" [xv: 2]) The bottom line here is that the admission of Lot to Abraham's camp was a basic error, for which Abraham himself is criticized in the following text from Bereshit Rabba:
Rabbi Nehemia states: God was angry at the fact that Lot was accompanying our patriarch Abraham. God said: "I told Abraham, 'I will grant this Land to your descendants,' yet he keeps close company with Lot and is grooming him to be his heir. If he is so zealous to have his nephew inherit him, why does Abraham not go to the marketplace and choose two orphans to serve as his heirs?"
To sum up, the literal interpretation of this episode explains the surface (disclosed) levels of the text, whereas the midrashic approach seeks the profounder levels, which are not consciously felt by the reader. Since these levels express themselves only in an oblique manner through the text, only a probing and exacting study of the language used in the verses in question can lead us to the hidden truth lying beneath the surface.
Prof. Elazar Touitou+-