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Parashat Vayera – Lottery Winner? 11/4/2009

Weekly Torah portion: November 6, 2009
Parashat Vayera – Lottery Winner?

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

We are first introduced to Lot, Avraham’s nephew, at the end of Parashat Noach, where we learn that he is the son of Avraham’s brother Haran, who died an untimely death.  In Parashat Lech L’cha Lot throws in his lot with Avraham and leaves his home to travel to the Land of Canaan.  He goes down to Egypt with Avraham, and keeps a discreet silence when Avraham and Sarah pass themselves off as brother and sister.  When they return to Canaan they are both wealthy men.  Their shepherds quarrel over grazing rights (more on this later) and they are forced to go their separate ways.  This is where our story gets interesting.

The quarrel between the shepherds is explained by our Rabbis as follows.  Avraham’s shepherds were careful not to allow their animals to graze on private land.  Lot’s shepherds were not so scrupulous and argued that since the Land had been promised to the childless Avraham which Lot would presumably inherit, that the Land was effectively theirs anyway and they were not stealing.  This of course is untrue.  The Land had been promised to Avraham’s descendents, but he had certainly not taken possession of it yet, and of course Lot was not his descendent.  The Torah confirms this counter-argument by emphasizing that “the Canaanite and the Perizzite were still in the Land.”  An additional Midrash informs us that Lot looked exactly like Avraham and therefore the problem becomes even more acute – if it were thought that Avraham’s shepherds were stealing, Avraham’s entire life’s work of bringing people close to H” would be endangered.  Thus it was imperative that they part.  Avraham gave Lot the choice, which direction to go.  Lot chose to live in Sodom.  The denouement of the story, the destruction of Sodom and Lot’s salvation take place in our Parashah.

We need to understand what exactly Lot chose when he decided to go live in Sodom.  Sodom is in the region of the Dead Sea, but Torah testifies that before its destruction the plain surrounding this area was remarkably well-watered and lush, “like the Garden of the Lord.”  The cities of the plain were wealthy and complacent, and had institutionalized greed and cruelty to a remarkable degree.  They carefully conspired to keep strangers at bay, lest they be forced to share their wealth with the less fortunate.  As our Rabbis say in Pirke Avot (5:13): “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours – this is the average person, but some say this is characteristic of Sodom.”

We can see the difference in Avraham’s and Lot’s reaction to wealth.  When offered all the spoils of his successful war against the 5 marauding kings, Avraham eschewed it all.  When offered the choice of where to live, Lot chose, of all possible places, Sodom.  Even though the two looked identical on the outside, they were diametric opposites on the inside.  I think if we were to sum up these attitudes in a few words, Lot was attached to the material world, while Avraham was able to remain uninvolved with it.

There is a requirement after eating that one wash hands.  Our Sages explain that this washing is to remove “the salt of Sodom” which is dangerous, and can blind us if our hands touch our eyes.  Most of us get our salt from Morton’s, not from Sodom; what is the meaning of our Sages words?  R. Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Land of Israel explains that the Sodomites were 100% focused on fulfilling all their material desires, including of course, appetite for food.  As paraphrased in the book Gold from the Land of Israel, R. Chanan Morrison explains R. Kook’s words:

A certain spiritual peril lurks in any meal that we eat.  Our involvement in gastronomic pleasures inevitably increases the value we assign to such activities, and decreases the importance of spiritual activities, efforts that truly perfect us.  As a preventative measure, the Sages decreed that we should wash our hands before eating … Despite this preparation, our involvement in the physical act of eating will reduce our sense of holiness to some degree.  To counteract this negative influence, we wash our hands after the meal.  With this ritual cleansing, we wash away the salt of Sodom, the residue of selfish preoccupation in sensual pleasures.  This dangerous salt, which can blind our eyes to the needs of others, is rendered harmless through the purifying ritual of mayim acharonim [“after-waters” – the post-meal ablutions].

Ultimately we must recognize that all finite existence is nothing more than the play of the infinite within itself.  When we allow ourselves to contact and to cleave to the infinite, our attachment to the finite naturally weakens, to the point where we no longer feel the driving fear of lack, causing us to close our fists and hang on for dear life to what, in the end, is ephemeral anyway.

Lot comes to a sad end in our Parashah.  Given the chance to flee Sodom before its destruction he hems and haws and delays, trying to hold on to his wealth while the world is falling apart all around him.  Finally he flees with his two daughters to the hills, penniless, alone, friendless, his wife turned into a pillar of Sodomite salt.  By hanging on tightly he is left with nothing.  What a contrast to Avraham.  Avraham holds on to nothing – he is the archetype of giving, even being willing to give his beloved son back to Gd.  And in the end we are told that “H” blessed Avraham with everything.”  Avraham held on tightly to Gd, to the infinite, putting aside all other considerations.  In the end, he is blessed with 200% value of life, all the spiritual treasures of the infinite and all the treasures of the material world as well.

I believe the lesson for us is obvious.  We are blessed to live in a place and in an era of immense prosperity and material accomplishment.  Yet we have seen in the events of the last year or two what far-reaching negative effects greed and grasping have.  The answer lies not in legislation nor even in exhortation.  The answer lies in each of us attaching ourselves to the infinite source of all creation.  Cradled in the arms of the beneficent Creator we have no need to be attached to anything else.