Thursday, November 17, 2011

Out of Egypt: Avraham vs. Lot

This is the first installation of a three-part series on the Biblical roots of Jewish assimilation in exile - and the long-term consequences thereof.

Soon after Avram's arrival in Israel a famine forces him to head for Egypt in search of food. After a brief - and traumatic - stay in Egypt, Avram, Sarai and Lot return to Israel. At this point in the story, it would be fair for us to wonder what effect, if any, their trip had on them. The Torah does not disappoint.
Avram went up from Egypt, he and his wife... and Lot was with him... He journeyed on from the south to Bais El to the original site of his tent between Bais El and Ai, to the site of the first altar that he had made. And Avram called there in the name of Hashem.  (Bereishis 13:1-4)
The Torah goes out of its way to emphasize the fact that Egypt had absolutely no effect on Avraham. Despite exposure to the indulgences and immorality of Egypt, despite the drama in the King's palace and despite his new-found wealth and power, Avraham returns to his humble tent in desert and continues in his mission of teaching monotheism as if nothing happened. His nephew Lot, however, is another story.
Lot raised his eyes and viewed the entire Jordan plain. It was completely fertile - this was before Hashem destroyed Sodom and Amorah - like a garden of Hashem, like the land of Egypt... Lot chose the entire Jordan plain for himself...  (13:10) 
How could the Torah, in the very same breath, compare the region of Sodom and Amorah to both the Garden of Eden and the land of Egypt?! I heard the answer to this question from Lisabeth Kaplan o"h in the Hillel House of UCSC. She explained that the Torah here is not describing reality. It is describing what Lot saw when he "raised his eyes." And after his trip to Egypt, Lot was one confused individual.

Lot missed Egypt. He loved the time he spent there and on his return to Israel he was searching not only for the Garden of God, but for the fleshpot of Egypt too. He wanted both, and when he saw the blessed, fertile plains of Sodom and Amorah he found exactly what he was looking for - or so he thought. Thus did Lot depart from his uncle Avram to meet his doom in Sodom.

Lot's conflicted value system comes to the fore when a mob surrounds his home and demands that he hand over his two guests for sodomy. Lot refuses their demands and valiantly protects his guests - offering the mob his two daughters in their place! (Apparently, Lot learned from Avraham the proper care and treatment of guests, but never learned the wisdom of Jewish parenting, for he left Avraham's home before Avraham had children.) Here we can see the influence of Egyptian promiscuity (cf. Rashi to 12:19) on Lot's behavior. Another example, no less troubling, is Lot's consensual incest with his second daughter (cf. Rashi to 19:33).

Avram's descent into Egypt and his return to Israel foreshadows the future national exile of the Jewish people in Egypt and their subsequent Exodus and return to Israel (cf. Ramban to 12:10). (This is obviously more than a mere literary device. As the Midrash says, "The events of the forefathers are a sign for the descendants.") If we can take this idea one step further, it stands to reason that the diametrically opposed behaviors of Avraham and Lot - behaviors which ultimately tore them apart - parallel divergent attitudes of Jews at the time of the Exodus. Unfortunately, this is indeed the case. Not all the Jews wanted to leave Egypt (cf. Rashi to Shemos 10:22). And even among the Jews who did want to go, there were those who wished to take Egypt with them... but we are getting ahead of ourselves. The second half of our story must wait for Parshas B'shalach.

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