Saturday, October 23, 2021

A Lot about Lot

Lot is a curious figure in the book of Genesis. He is heavily associated with Avram/Avraham, who founded the Jewish people and is considered a master of chesed and of hospitality. His nephew Lot was associated with him for many years and was heavily influenced by him. And in much of Lot’s behavior we see a shadow of Avraham’s standards – superficially trying to emulate him but getting the details so horribly wrong. Lot is a cautionary tale that imitating the behavior of a righteous person without understanding their underlying motivations is a path likely to lead one astray. 

Let’s start with the beginning of this week’s parsha. Avraham Avinu is sitting in the door of his tent, which is the threshold between his private space and the public space which he strives to influence. He sees three people passing by. They are actually angels, but either he only perceives them as men or chooses to act as if that was the case. He runs to meet them and bows down to the earth. He invites them in and offers them a small meal, which they accept immediately. Then he goes and actually orders a lavish feast for them. Hashem decides to inform Avraham of the impending destruction of Sedom. Famously, Avraham tries to save the entire city (actually all 5 cities of the plain) for the sake of the righteous who might dwell there. He does not make any special plea for Lot. Hashem and the messengers leave Avraham without Avraham knowing whether he has succeeded or not. 

Lot is sitting in the gate of the city of Sedom, the threshold between the insular unwelcoming city of Sedom and the outside world it exploits. He sees two angels appear. Notice that the messengers appear to Avraham as men, but to Lot as angels. Do the angels think Lot needs more of a reason to extend hospitality than Avraham would? Rashi claims Avraham was so used to angels appearing to him that to him they were like men, whereas to Lot in Sedom any guest is a rariety, and presumed to be important, In any event, Lot rises up to meet them, and then falls down on his face to the Earth, just as Avraham did. Lot asks them to come to his house and stay for the night, offering even more hospitality than Avraham did. The angels initially refuse, and Lot continues to press the invitation until they accept. It is easy to draw the conclusion that Avraham was offering genuine hospitality to the men, while Lot was eager to bring powerful messengers/angels to his house and perhaps put them into his debt. This is supported midrashically by the fact that Avraham did give them a lavish feast, whereas the meal Lot offered was so meager that he had to ask his neighbors for salt. So it seems Lot understood the basic idea of inviting guests, but tended to do so solely for his advantage. 

Lot gives another example of not understanding what Avraham’s principles are all about when he shows his hospitality to his powerful visitor by offering his own daughters to appease angry mob that would otherwise have abused his guests. Is this horrific offer a case of him putting his duties to his guests above his responsibility to his daughters? Is he concerned with his own survival, and offering his daughters because he misunderstood how Avraham behaved in Egypt with regard to Sarah? Once again an apparent attempt to mimic Avraham is shown to have Lot’s self interest as the primary motivator.

The angels then inform Lot about the forthcoming destruction of Sedom. Lot tries to bring his whole family along to flee the city, but is unable to get them to cooperate. He keeps stalling the angels until at the end they literally drag him, his wife, and his two daughters out of the city before it is destroyed. They tell him that all the cities of the plain will be destroyed and tell him to to flee to ‘the mountain.’ Instead, he bargains with them, asking that then nearby small city of Zoar be preserved and he be allowed to flee there. His request is granted. Lot and his daughters flee to Zoar, but after the other cities are destroyed they proceed on to the mountain, and it appears that Zoar itself is then destroyed. Unlike Avraham, who bargained to save the lives of the people of Sedom, Lot again is interested in the survival of himself and his family.

Lot’s journey after Sedom reflects the initial arc of the story of Abraham. Back at the end of Noach, Terach takes both Avram and Lot out of Ur, intending to go to Canaan. Some commentators think that is was also a divine command, But in the event, they stop at Haran, and is from there that many years later Avraham and Lot complete the journey. They do, they enter the land, and Avraham is told that his descendants will not fully inhabit it until the land vomits forth its current inhabitants due to their (mostly sexual) immorality.

Lot receives a divine command to flee Sedom and go to ‘the Mountain’. He initially only travels partway, as far as Zoar. But after a very short interval he leaves Zoar and completes the journey to ‘the Mountain.’ But instead of living a life of virtue among the inhabitants, he and his daughters are the only ones there, and they jointly participate in the kind of immorality that will eventually lead to the Caaninite’s destruction.