Parashat Lech Lecha: When the family split

The biblical portion of Lech Lecha is a kaleidoscope of intriguing and exciting sequences - from attempted rape to inter-family conflict to a major war to God's mysterious covenant with Abraham.

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November 1, 2006 11:27

The biblical portion of Lech Lecha is a kaleidoscope of intriguing and exciting sequences - from attempted rape to inter-family conflict to a major war to God's mysterious covenant with Abraham. Are these disparate stories held together only by a timeline, or is there a conceptual scheme placing them in a higher context? I believe that an examination of the parasha's seven sub-divisions, or aliyot, will provide the uniting theme as well as Israel's most important - though often overlooked - role among the nations. Rabbi Elhanan Samet points out the strange discrepancy between the chapter divisions and the aliya sub-divisions. Our portion opens with Chapter 12, describing Abram's divine election, his arrival in the Promised Land, the famine there and his resultant sojourn in Egypt, and concludes with Pharaoh sending him and his family out of Egypt. Chapter 13 opens with Abram's return to Israel, includes his separation from his nephew Lot, and ends with God's renewal of His special blessing upon Abram and his seed. Chapter 14 deals with Abram's successful war against the four despotic kings of the region, and Chapter 15 details God's covenant with Abram. These chapter divisions appear to be logical, with the Egyptian sojourn merely a passing episode, a momentary foil for the greater Jewish adventures in Israel. The aliya divisions, which seem to have much sounder traditional roots, appear at first glance to be far less logical - especially the placement of the second. Since the Egyptian sojourn begins in the opening aliya soon after Abram moves to Israel (Gen. 12:10), and only extends for 10 verses, logic would dictate that the second aliya begins with chapter 13: "And Abram came up [to Israel] from Egypt, he and his wife and all that were his, and Lot with him, to the Negev" (Gen. 13:1). But no, the second aliya starts seven verses earlier, when Abram enters Egypt and the Egyptians capture his beautiful wife Sarai for Pharaoh's harem. And the next (third) aliya opens not with Abram's return to Israel, where Chapter 13 begins, but rather four verses later: "And also to Lot, who was going with Abram, there were sheep and cattle and tents" - the entire segment is dedicated to Lot's separation from Abram. Is the altercation with Lot a more significant event than Abram's return to Israel? I'd like to suggest that Lot is a significant - perhaps even the most significant - personality in the first half of our biblical reading, and continues to appear in various guises throughout the Bible. Our parasha opens with God's command to Abram to move to the land of Israel: "I shall make you a great nation, I shall bless you, and I shall make your name great; you shall be a blessing. I shall bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I shall curse; all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you" (Gen. 12: 2,3). God is promising Abram two things: national development and a spiritual greatness that will encompass the world. The Vilna Gaon suggests that the phrase usually translated "I shall curse" might actually mean "I will show the light." Israel is to be a light unto the nations, a kingdom of priest/teachers who bring the message of ethical monotheism to the world. Abram desperately requires progeny for both of these mandates. And so the barren Abram and Sarai place their hope for the future on Lot, Abram's dead brother's son. Hence the Bible records - in the verse following the blessing and the charge - "And Abram went in accordance with the way the Lord spoke to him, and Lot went with him... And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot the son [of his brother] and all the wealth they had acquired... " (Gen. 12:4, 5). But then came the famine and the sojourn in Egypt. The second aliya highlights Egyptian exile as being fraught with both physical danger (Sarai is seized) and spiritual danger (the materialistic blandishments of Egypt). The Hebrew family survives the near-rape intact, but Egypt seems to have a corrosive effect on Lot: "And Abram came up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that were his, and Lot next to him... " (Gen. 13:1). This is very different from when the family set out for Egypt: then, Lot was mentioned right after Abram and Sarai (that is, before their possessions), and went with Abram physically and spiritually ("ito") and not merely in physical proximity ("imo"), as here. At this juncture, however, the change in Lot is merely hinted at. The next aliya, which begins, "And also Lot, going with Abram, had sheep, cattle and tents... And the land was not sufficient to carry both of them... " (Gen. 13:5, 6), leaves no room for doubt. Israel has become too small for the two of them; Abram's mission isn't materialistic enough for Lot, who has no desire to perfect the world; he wants to own it! So he leaves Abram's land and Lord in favor of the lush, Egypt-like Sodom to pursue matter rather than spirit, momentary vice rather than monumental vision. The great message of Abraham's new name (earned in Gen. 17:5) is his universal mission ("Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee"). Hence, the second aliya concludes with "And Abram called out [to humanity] there with the name of the Lord" (Gen. 13:4), and the third aliya concludes with, "And Abram built there an altar to the Lord" (Gen. 13:18). The fourth aliya deals with Melchizedek (identified by the Midrash as Shem, son of Noah), the king of Jerusalem, who recognizes the universal God of peace. And the rest of the parasha deals with God's covenant with Abraham - His promise of an heir who will make Abraham's progeny light the world like the stars of heaven. The structure and content of our Torah portion teach us why and how Lot cannot be considered a suitable heir for Abraham's mission. We must wait many generations for Lot's return to the fold, in the person of his descendant Ruth (offspring of Moab, the son born to Lot and his daughter). Apparently God has cosmic patience, and so must we, if we are to be His emissaries. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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