Dealing with People Who Don’t Serve Gd

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Meshech Hochmah to Lech Lecha: Dealing with People Who Don’t Serve Gd

Lot Doesn’t Notice Avraham Outgrow Him

Meshech Hochmah notices a progressive change in how verses refer to Lot’s relationship to Avraham. At the beginning of the parsha, 12;4, when Avraham leaves Haran at Gd’s command, the verse says va-yelech ito Lot, Lot went with him, and brings up Lot before it mentions Sarai, Avraham’s wife. As of then, Lot was a friend, colleague, a companion, almost an equal.

In Israel, Gd appeared to Avraham twice in close succession, bringing Avraham more into the world of sanctity, while Lot stayed stagnant. The growing gap between them showed itself when Avraham left Egypt, 13;1, where Lot is now an add-on—Avraham returns from Egypt with his wife and all his possessions, and the verse says only Lot was with him. Lot still thinks their relationship is the same, still thinks they are such close friends, where Avraham is on a different plane.

Lot’s cluelessness shows itself in 13;5, where the verse says he too, who had gone with Avram, had taken back livestock, cattle, and tents. For Meshech Hochmah, it shows Lot had not understood what was going on, the heights Avraham was scaling. Lot thought they were wandering the world, picking up wealth and possessions, unaware he was traveling with the progenitor of the Jewish people.

It’s a frequent concern of mine, how we can think we are playing one game, doing well or poorly at it, when were we to see straight, we would realize we don’t even know the game we’re supposed to be playing. Sadly for Lot, he never got it; I only hope we do better.

Stick with Problems or Let Them Go

In 13:14, Hashem speaks with Avram, a conversation the verse times to after Lot separated from him. Rashi says the Torah made the point to tell us Avram’s association with the wicked Lot hindered Gd’s willingness to speak to him. Meshech Hochmah does not refer to Rashi, but does note that the idea is one of two views (that of R. Nehemiah) in Bereshit Rabbah 41;8, Gd disliked (was angry about) Avram’s association with Lot.

The other view, R. Yuda, said the opposite, Gd was angry with Avram for letting Lot go. Avram built relationships with all sorts of people, brought them closer to Gd (an idea tradition inferred from ha-nefesh asher asu be-Haran, the souls they “made” in Haran, at the beginning of the parsha), yet could not do it with his own cousin/nephew?!

Meshech Hochmah sees a connection between these views and the next Midrash, where two other amoraim tussle over the meaning of aharei, after. One held it meant right after, to Meshech Hochmah in line with the idea Gd disapproved of the relationship, appeared to Avram as soon as that barrier was cleared away. The other said aharei meant long after (muflag, distant), possibly indicating Gd objected to Avram’s failure to keep Lot close, refrained from speaking with Avram for some time, as a sort of rebuke.

To me, it is an elegant way to draw our attention to a lasting disagreement in Jewish thought about how to handle people who have chosen bad paths, especially relatives. In his readin, one view thinks Avram should have kept Lot close even after Lot insisted on grazing his flocks where they did not belong. If he was so good at kiruv, bringing others to Gd’s service, why not his own family?

I personally tend more to the other side, Avram was correct to cut his losses [I would suggest that’s especially true with family, it’s easier to share Torah ideas where no other baggage interferes, but maybe that’s just me], and Gd was waiting for him to realize it.

Likely, the answer lies in the middle, to be evaluated carefully in each instance, meaning they were debating only which evaluation was more correct for Avraham with Lot. For the rest of us, it might be both: there are times we have to keep wrongdoers close, in the hopes we can help them grow to be better, and there are times we have to separate. Not an easy calculation or choice, and according to some of these rabbis, a place where Avram himself might have mis-stepped.

When Help Isn’t Helpful

Lot chooses Sodom, a city populated by evil and sinful people (13;13), who later find themselves on the losing end of a war with the four kings, taken captive. Still attached to his kinsman, Avram chases after, attacks, saves the five kings of the Sodom area, frees Lot, and restores all their possessions, other than the share of those who joined him in the war, and what he donated to Gd.

The verse after the battle and its aftermath, 15;1, has Gd telling Avram not to fear. In context, it is easy to read the fear as worries about a successor, about who would inherit the Land and bounty he had been promised or, as Rashi has it, fear his victory over a stronger enemy had depleted his reward.

Meshech Hochmah points the fear in a completely different direction. Had Avram not stepped in, he notes, the people of Greater Sodom would have gone into exile and suffered poverty, two experiences that often lead to redemptive change. Had that happened, they might have been brought to realize the necessity of caring even for strangers, helping them and newcomers in need.

After he saved them, Avram realized they had stayed exactly who they had been [a great fear of mine in general, that I—and people I see, for whom I would hope for better—will miss opportunities to realize how we need to change, will undergo suffering, or be spared it, without learning its lessons]. He worried it was partially his fault, his well-meant interference hurting rather than helping. So Hashem told him not to fear.

The underlying assumption feels out of step with current certainties, which to me is always a place to stop and think. Meshech Hochmah is sure it’s not always the best thing to help others; sometimes, they need to flounder and suffer, so they can grow as they need to. Hashem was reassuring Avraham that with Sodom, it wouldn’t have made a difference either way.

The Necessary Truth of Prophecy

The first three comments of Meshech Hochmah’s went faster than I thought they would, only just over a thousand words, so I’m giving a bonus one (if you want to stop reading here, you do already have your three comments). In 15;16, at the Berit bein ha-Betarim, the Covenant between the Pieces, Gd tells Avram his fourth generation of descendants would return from exile, because the Emorites’ sins would not be complete until then. Meshech Hochmah wonders about the seeming intrusion on freewill, since the promise assumes that four generations later, the Land would be available for the Jewish people. What if the Emorites changed for the better?

The Jews would still get the Land, he argues, because these reformed Emorites would be ready to heed Gd’s word, would willingly cede the Land if told Gd decided it belonged to the Jewish people [a remarkable way to conceive of goodness, that it must mean a willingness to bow to Gd’s Will, to go as far as to give up one’s land].

Prophecies don’t always work out the way our first reading would say. The promise here seems to be Gd would expel the Emorites (or help the Jews do it) in four generations. To leave room for Emorite repentance, Meshech Hochmah says Gd only really promised the Land would be available at that point, whether through conquest or Emorite donation. Because prophecies are always true, just not always in the way we expect [as my rebbe, R. Lichtenstein might have said, are not always willing to deform themselves to fit our Procustean sarcophagi.

As we travel this world, we hope we are growing. Along the way, we meet others on different paths, or perhaps opposite ones. We bond with them sometimes, outgrow them at others, hope for the best of them as they leave us, and still do our best to help them when need or opportunity arises.

About Gidon Rothstein

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