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Parashat 10/13/2010

Parashat Lech L’cha

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Environmental Crisis!

And the Land could not carry both of them living together. (13:6)

If we don’t count the Flood, Torah is describing the first environmental crisis in history.  Avram and Lot, having gone to Egypt because of a famine in the Land of Israel, both come back to the Land wealthy men, with much cattle and flocks.  Apparently their wealth exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, there was no room to graze their animals together, and this caused strife between their herdsmen.

And there was strife between the shepherds of Avram’s flocks and the shepherds of Lot’s flocks; and the Canaanites and the Perizzites were yet living in the Land.

From the apparent non-sequitur about the incumbent residents, the Midrash concludes that the source of the strife was a difference in attitude towards the possessions of others.  Rashi explains:

For Lot’s herdsmen were wicked and grazed their animals in other peoples’ fields.  When Avram’s herdsmen rebuked them for thievery, they retorted that the Land had been given to Avram, and he had no heirs, therefore Lot, who was his brother’s son, would inherit him.  Therefore Scripture replies: the Canaanites and the Perizzites were yet living in the Land, and therefore Avram had not actually acquired it yet.

Now Lot comes in for a considerable amount of praise before they descend to Egypt.  One of Avram’s 10 tests, and some say his most difficult one, was to leave his family and his homeland, as discussed at the beginning of our Parashah.  Lot, Avram’s nephew and star pupil, chose to leave his family and homeland and come along with Avram.  (Remember, no cell phones and no email back then…)  When this is described at the beginning of the Parashah, Torah states that Lot went with Avram, and the Hebrew word for with is ito, which indicates “with, but in a subordinate capacity.”  Like “Sergeant Ploni drove to the base with General Schwartzkopf.”

Fast forward now to the return from Egypt.  Lot, now a wealthy man, returns to the Land of Israel with Avram, but now the Hebrew expression is imo, which indicates equality – “General Cartwright came to the meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with Admiral Mullen.”  Somehow, the fact that he had gained material wealth gave Lot the mistaken impression that he was on a spiritual level commensurate with that of his spiritual master.  I think there is no quicker way to run into trouble than to think you have achieved the same spiritual plateau as your teacher; as I learned from a wonderful lawyer: “to claim it is to deny it.”

Avram, perhaps recognizing what was happening, perceives that the contention between the shepherds was but a symptom of a deeper problem, and that problem lay in Lot’s self-image.  He therefore suggests to Lot that they live separately, and Lot agrees.  Avram offers Lot the choice of living space, and Lot chooses the Sedom region, which is as rich a land as can be – on the surface.  However, it was well known that Sedom was a cesspool of moral depravity.  Choosing Sedom as a place to live meant virtually selling one’s soul for material benefits.  Torah tells us (13:11): And Lot went from the east. The word used is mi-kedem, which the Midrash takes as mi-kadmono shel olam – away from the First One of the World.  Lot said “I desire neither Avram nor his Gd.”

The result was disaster, both material and spiritual.  First Lot is captured in the war of the 4 Kings against the 5 Kings.  Why was he captured?  Rashi answers (14:12 to “And he [Lot] was living in Sedom“): “Who caused him this? His living in S’dom!”  Sedom’s wealth was a magnet for bandits and plunderers, and Lot was caught up in the maelstrom.  In next week’s parashah we will trace the final destruction of Sedom and Lot’s sorry end as well.

The story is quite different with regard to Avram.  Right after Lot leaves the scene, Gd promises Avram that he will inherit the Land of Israel, that he will become the father of a multitude of nations, and that he will, after a century of trying, finally have a son and heir.  Rashi makes the obvious connection: (13:14)  “After Lot departed. The whole time that that evil one was with him, the Word remained apart from him [Avram].”  Finally, the cloud has lifted, Gd’s light can shine through to Avram.

What appeared at first to be a physical environmental crisis is really a spiritual environmental crisis.  Each one of us creates a spiritual environment around ourselves.  We all know this – sometimes we visit someone’s house and we feel such an air of peace and serenity that we want to stay forever and bask in it.  Sometimes we go some place and it feels like our mind is in a toxic waste dump.  Sometimes that spiritual environment promotes growth, and sometimes it’s the opposite.  The collective effect of all our individual contributions creates a collective environment which can likewise be either growth-promoting or the opposite.  I think it is fair to say, using Lot and Avram as examples, that the less we are attached to the material world, the more life-promoting will be the environment that we create.  When we are attached to material things, whether it be money or power or honor, we will let our individual integrity suffer in order to get that which we are attached to.  Perhaps that is why Torah later commands us: “Let nothing of the banned [idolatrous] goods stick to your hands.” [my italics]  The stickier we are, the more stuff gets stuck to us, and the harder it becomes for us to move forward.

And lest we try to comfort ourselves that this little morality play took place “long ago in a galaxy far away,” we should ask ourselves some prying questions: How attached are we to what we have?  Could we live on less?  Half as much?  How many of our chatchkies could we do without?  Do we give what we should to those less well-off, to the sick, to the vulnerable?  Do we support organizations that entrench wealth and power and increase oppression of the poor, or do we support those organizations that promote human welfare and dignity?  Are we scrupulously honest in our business dealings?  “Well yeah, sort of” doesn’t count.  Do we trust our government?  It reflects our collective consciousness, so if the answer is “no” don’t point fingers at the party you didn’t vote for.  We all voted for the government we have, with its corruption and bribery and influence peddling.  Do we trust our business leaders?  Or is our society so driven by greed for money and material things that we would subordinate any human value to make an extra buck?  Do we spend our time developing ourselves spiritually, or do we come home and plop down in front of the TV with a 6-pack (or other soporific of choice)?  I think we know the answers to these questions and the picture is not at all pretty.

We have a choice – we can live like Avram or we can live like Lot.  We also need to choose the environment we want to live in.  Even within our materialistic culture (and incidentally, I am not singling out the US for censure – the same questions can be asked anywhere in the world and we would get more or less the same answers), we can find, or help create, islands of spirituality where we can insulate ourselves to some degree from the currents of popular culture, yet we can influence popular culture to move in a different direction.

Avram was called “the Hebrew” – in Hebrew Ivri from the word that means “the other side.”  Avram, our forebear, stood on one side of a moral chasm, “alone and uncomprehended,” and challenged the world to live up to its spiritual potential.  He founded the Jewish people, whose charge from the Creator has been to raise the world from the muck of materialism to a recognition of the infinite, Divine source of all being and all materiality.  So far, we have not succeeded in redeeming the world.  It is up to each one of us to ask “When will my deeds rise to the level of the deeds of my ancestors?”