(photo credit: ROOM404.NET)
The main personality in this week’s Torah portion is our forefather Abraham. He is the central character though not the only one. There are others who accompany Abraham on his geographical and philosophical journeys, such as Sarah, his wife; Isaac and Ishmael, his sons; and also Lot, his nephew.
Lot accompanies Abraham from the moment he embarks on his journey toward the Land of Canaan, the land later promised to Abraham which will be called the Land of Israel, or Eretz Yisrael. He also goes south with him to Egypt during the famine, and afterward Lot returns with Abraham to Canaan, where our story reaches a turning point. Tension arises in the relationship between Abraham and Lot, which is expressed in the disputes between their shepherds. Abraham, recognizing that the dispute stems from their different characters, suggests that they part ways, and invites Lot to choose the most fertile place in Canaan during those days – Sodom.
Sodom is more than just a fertile place, though. It is a place whose inhabitants “are very evil and sinful against the Lord.” They were so evil that God decided to destroy Sodom and its neighboring cities.
But Lot also lives in Sodom, as the “righteous man of Sodom.” Human-looking angels are sent to Lot and are hosted by him, despite Sodom’s strict rules which forbid hosting guests of any kind. Lot’s offense is not overlooked. The people of Sodom surround his house and demand to lynch the guests. Lest we forget, this is Sodom and their rules are destructive and corrupt.
And here Lot, who up until now functioned as a righteous man in Sodom, makes a strange decision. He suggests to the Sodomite mob surrounding his house to make a switch in lieu of the guests, and the switch he is willing to sacrifice is odd: And he said, “My brethren, please do not do evil.
Behold, now, I have two daughters who have not been intimate with a man. I will bring them out to you, and do to them as you see fit; only to these men do nothing, because they have come under the shadow of my roof.”
(Genesis 19:7-8) Notice Lot’s strange value system. He daringly protects his guests, and in exchange for their welfare he is prepared to sacrifice his daughters. Gone is the basic and natural paternal instinct to love and protect his offspring, and the guests become more important than these two daughters. How could this be? There is a reason the Torah tells us this story. Lot was educated by Abraham and undoubtedly acquired many positive values, among them, as we read, the value of hospitality even at great personal risk, as he takes by breaking Sodom’s rules.
We are accustomed to a simplistic description of man dealing with values on the one hand, and temptation on the other: loyalty versus betrayal; integrity versus wealth-seeking; forgiveness versus the desire for revenge. But Lot was facing a much more complex dilemma. On the one hand, he had the value of hospitality which was surely a positive value. On the other hand, he had the basic humanity of a father’s love for his children, which is undoubtedly a most positive value. Here Lot failed. His value system was so upsidedown that he chose to sacrifice his own daughters for his guests.
People often face these sorts of dilemmas. Sometimes a man can help the whole world, but he neglects his own wife and children. A person might travel great distances to contribute to humanity while at the same time he tramples over the people around him. A more familiar example is when people hold the truly important value of respect for animals so dear that they are willing to sacrifice people for the good of the cause.
People like this are good, ideological people, but they fail where Lot failed: with an upside-down value system.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.