For the week ending 31 October 2015 / 18 Heshvan 5776

Lot - Seeds of the Messiah

by Rabbi Shlomo Simon
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The character of Lot is a subject of much discussion among the commentators. As the Michtav M'Eliyahu explains in his essay on Lech Lecha, there are Midrashim that seem glaringly contradictory in their description of him. He is portrayed in some as completely righteous — and in others as wicked. From the Chumashand commentaries this dichotomy also emerges.

What underlies this dichotomy in Lot's character? What led to his decision to separate from Avraham? Why does the Torah bother to tell us his story at all? What lessons are we to learn from Lot?

To begin, it is instructive to look at the versesdescribing the actual separation. The Torah relates that because both Avraham and Lot were so rich, the land could not support them both. As a result, disputes arose between their respective shepherds. But it was not competition for pasture land that was their only point of contention. Rashi on the versedescribing their separation (Ber. 13:11) cites a Midrash which states that Lot wanted neither Avraham nor his G-d. There is no reason to believe that Lot ever consciously thought such a thought. On the contrary, there is much evidence that Lot never consciously abandoned the belief that Avraham had taught him. The Torah illustrates many examples of Lot continuing in the traditions of Avraham. But, as the Michtav M'Eliyahu says in many places, when one has a negiyut, a personal interest in the outcome of a certain event, emet (truth) is obscured. Personal interest triggers justification, rationalization and other psychological mechanisms that hide from a person his real motives for acting as he does. As it is a barrier to truth, it is a major obstacle to a person's advancing to a higher spiritual plane, and, as such, a formidable tool in the hands of the person’s baser inclinations (yetzer hara). The Midrash, therefore, could be telling us what went on subconsciously in Lot's mind. Yet, these subconscious thoughts represent his truest feelings.

Lot was now in a situation in which psychologically he was forced to justify these innermost thoughts with his conscious self-image, as a follower of the belief that Avraham taught. Otherwise, how could he abandon his teacher, Avraham, and go off to live in an environment so obviously materialistic and immoral? In a brilliant psychological insight, the Michtav M'Eliyahu maintains that Lot went to Sodom thinking of himself as a kiruv (outreach) worker, trying to reform a wayward population. Given such an image of himself, Lot could now vicariously indulge in the immorality of Sodom while at the same time scolding its depraved behavior. Since he didn't realize his true motivations, he could rise to seemingly great levels of mesirut nefesh (extreme and righteous dedication), as he did in his importuning and then protecting the melachim or when educating his daughter to be charitable to the poor, even though, as the Midrash tells us, it cost his daughter her life when she was caught feeding the poor and tortured to death by the people of Sodom. Yet, the true measure of these acts is noted by the Torah's failure to mention any reward received for them. Lot was in fact motivated by a yetzer hara eager to pull the wool further down over his eyes. The falsity of Lot's surface-level motivation is apparent from the fact that the only one who appears to have changed in Sodom is Lot himself, who sank so low that he ends up having relations with his daughters. The Sodomites remained unchanged.

Therefore, one reason for Lot's separation was his inability to reconcile his desire to live in Sodom with the teachings of Avraham. By leaving Avraham he removed himself from both his teacher and his teacher's conception of the Divine. Thus, he no longer was constantly reminded of his inconsistencies and shortcomings. He is the very prototype of the man “who does right in his own eyes.” When we see this phrase in the Prophets, as a description of people who make up their own rules and disregard G-d's commandments, the Torah is not just euphemizing; rather, it is describing the state of mind of man's attempt to justify his behavior to himself. Man can easily live a lie, but he has great difficulty living with discordance. If he removes himself from the source of his discomfort he can easily “forget” the niggling questions that bother him, and he can pursue a life-style driven by his baser desires. This justification becomes his "philosophy". This is what Lot sought. A man needs a philosophy to live by, especially someone who had trained so rigorously under the greatest philosopher of all time — Avraham. To justify his behavior, Lot had to develop a similar belief to Avraham’s, yet one which would permit him to partake of those desires that drove him.

As the Torah continues its narrative, we can now see how dwelling in Sodom affected Lot. While protecting his guests even at the cost of his own life, he was willing to give his two unmarried daughters to a rampaging mob to do with them as they pleased. The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayera 12) teaches that a normal man would risk his life to save the chastity of his daughters and wife, whereas Lot volunteered them to a sadistic mob. We also see from the incident with his daughters in the cave another major character defect. When Lot left Sodom he did not reveal to his daughters that those cities had been destroyed for their wickedness while the rest of the world was not affected. This was the cause of his daughters' error and resulted in their believing that they were performing a mitzvah by perpetuating their father's seed.

What motivated Lot to hide this information? A more preliminary question is: Why did Lot choose to stay in Sodom? Understandably, he was initially attracted to the place by its lush, green plain (the material plenty), but once he saw the perverted nature of the people why didn't he leave? His first opportunity was after Avraham rescued him in the war of the “four against the five kings”; yet he nevertheless chose to return. After his daughter was tortured to death by the Sodomites for feeding a hungry man, he also should have felt compelled to leave.

Rav Dessler indicates that his reason for staying was one that Lot could not see. In Pirkei Avot (4:28), Rabbi Elazar HaKapar states that jealousy, lust and the desire for honor remove one from the world. Lot is a subtle, yet prime, illustration of this Mishna. Because of these improper motivations he removed himself from Avraham, of whom it is said “Tzadik yesod olam”(the righteous person is the foundation of the world).

Lot’s jealousy of Avraham and his love of immorality and materialism caused him to dwell in Sodom and not abandon it, even when it was objectively clear that living there was causing his downfall. Because of his desire for kavod (honor) he wanted his daughters to think that in the entire world he was the only one worthy of being saved, making him comparable to Noah on one level, and, by surviving even Avraham, raising his status to that of the greatest tzadik the world had ever seen. The desire for kavod also explains his securing a position as a judge in a city where justice was totally perverted. Any truly righteous person, had he been asked to enforce uniformly unjust laws, would have declined the position and its accompanying honor. But Lot accepted.

What happened to Lot that caused him to change from being a tzadik who was Avraham's main disciple, to someone who outwardly kept mitzvot but was inwardly driven by materialistic and temporal desires? The HaEmek Davar writes that when Lot left Mitzrayim with Avraham the verse uses the words "v'Lot imo" (“and Lot with him”). By using the word “imo” rather than “ito” (which also means with him) the Torah indicates a very close relationship. As the succeeding versesstate, Lot also grew very rich. Their combined wealth was putting too great a demand on the pasture lands in their vicinity for both of them to continue living together in one camp. In addition, there were disputes between the shepherds of Avraham and Lot. As Rashi explains, Lot, seeing himself as Avraham' s sole heir, considered himself as the owner of Canaan, even though Avraham had not as yet taken possession of it, as the verse states, “And the Canaaniand the Pereziwere then dwelling in the land.” (Ber. 13:7). He therefore allowed his sheep to graze on private land, which was considered by Avraham to be theft. The cause of Lot's downfall was his inability to cope with his success. His acquisition of wealth and fame led him astray.

The question that arises from all this is, “What was there in Lot that G-d saw fit to have Mashiachdescended from him?” Although we see that Lot brought about his own embarrassment by concealing from his daughters his knowledge that he was not the last man on earth, the Midrash says that wine had been prepared in the cave for the purpose of getting Lot drunk so that his daughters could cohabit with him and beget Mashiach. The daughters must also have taken the presence of the wine in the cave as a miraculous occurrence placed there providentially to aid in the propagation of humanity.

Rav Zev Leff sees in Lot the epitome of the two thousand years of Tohu v'Vohu, which ended with Avraham Avinu, who ushered in the two thousand years of Torah. Lot in many ways is the embodiment of Tohu v'Vohu. He is a mixture of good and evil, undirected mitzvot, kindness without propriety. That is why Avraham needed to part from him. Avraham told him that they “must separate because we are brothers”, meaning that “We look the same on the outside, but on the inside we're different.” Because they appeared so much alike (not only physically but also in their outward behavior), Avraham saw in Lot a danger that no one else in the world presented. Lot was, by his very being, a “misrepresentation” of Avraham. He was in a sense a “prototype Avraham” from a different generation.

For this reason, neither Avraham nor the Divine Presence can abide his presence. Lot represents Avraham’s mission of “correcting the world”; finding and fixing the inherent mixture of good and evil in man. This mixture, which began with eating from the Tree of Knowledge, needs to be corrected in order for the world to return to its ideal state. It took someone of Avraham's stature to begin the breakout from the state of Tohu v'Vohu and to create the Jewish People, through which the world will eventually have its Tikun, its perfect correction. But, inherent in the mission of the Mashiachis the message that everything that happens in the world is good. Therefore, there is good in Tohu v'Vohu. To illustrate G-d's presence even in that cloudy and murky area, G-d saw fit to bring Mashiach — the embodiment of the ultimate of human good — from the epitome of that confused epoch, Lot.

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