There are many people who, due to the exigency of having to earn a living, are forced to work for a company or business concern whose values they cannot conform with. For example, they might work for an advertising company and have to promote cigarettes for juveniles even though they would prefer not to entice people to smoke. Alternatively, they are employed by a company which plagiarizes other brand names and sells cheap imitations, or they may have to devise technology which could assist the mass distribution of pornographic material. While many of these people will argue that their presence in such firms does not imply their identification with its values, they may suffer from moral angst when confronted with the consequences of their company’s policies. Can these people be held responsible for their company’s decadent behavior? Will that behavior affect them as well?
A possible answer to these questions may emerge from this week’s Parsha, which deals at length with Avraham’s association with his nephew Lot. Lot is at first attracted to Avraham’s rejection of his forebears’ idolatrous practices, but later on he is blinded by dreams of material comforts and a life of pleasure without spiritual demands. Rabbi Zalman Sorotskin draws attention to the unusual phraseology at the beginning of the Parsha: “Avraham went when G-d spoke to him, and Lot accompanied him; Avraham was seventy five years old when he left Charan”. Avraham had not intended to take Lot along. He had received the divine command to journey to Israel and he would go alone. Lot, however, joined him, knowing that “Avraham was seventy five years old” and childless and thus Lot would inherit him. This is why Avraham’s age is mentioned at this juncture. Avraham obviously discerned his nephew’s intentions, but he hoped to groom Lot to be his true spiritual successor.
The watershed point at which Avraham realizes that Lot cannot succeed him is a seemingly minor incident. Avraham’s shepherds initiated a fight with Lot’s shepherds. Chazal explain that the fight was not merely over land rights, since as Avraham points out “all the land is before you”-there is room for everyone. However, Lot’s shepherds let their animals graze in all fields, while Avraham’s shepherds were careful to prevent any theft by their animals. Lot’s shepherds contended that the land had anyway been promised to Avraham and Lot would eventually inherit from him, while Avraham’s shepherds saw this as theft. Avraham then declared to his nephew: “Please separate from me! If you go left, I will go right, and if you go right, I will go left”.
Avraham’s reaction appears to be radical and exaggerated. Instead of using quiet diplomacy to persuade Lot to rectify his moral standards, Avraham opts for a harsh and unconditional separation between the two kinsmen. Surely Avraham must have felt a sense of total failure and bitter isolation when he saw his star protégé choosing to live in Sodom, which represented the antithesis of all that Avraham stood for.
Moreover, Lot’s shepherds had a salient point: if the owners of these fields had really wanted to protect their fields from trespassing animals, they could have expressed their objections or built a fence around those fields. Indeed, this point is made by the sage Abaye, when he is sent by Rav Yosef to rebuke the shepherds of the Tarbu family for letting their goats graze in his fields. (Bava Kama 23b). Abaye’s response is that the shepherds will claim that Rav Yosef should have built a fence if he wanted to protect his fields. There are even authorities who uphold Abaye’s argument as halacha (see Rach, Bava Kama ibid). Why then is Avraham so insistent on separation from his nephew?
The Netsiv in his preface to Bereishit ponders why the forefathers are described as “honest” people (Numbers 23:10, see Talmud Avodah Zara 25). He explains that there were many righteous people in Jewish history that studied Torah but were not scrupulous in their dealings with others who were less learned and righteous than themselves. The forefathers, however, exhibited exemplary honesty and justness even when dealing with evil nations. We can glimpse Avraham’s sense of propriety from his impassioned defense of Sodom’s right to live, even as he totally negated their way of life. Similarly, Avraham’s refusal to take anything from Sodom when he rescues them from the four kings demonstrates his abhorrence of taking money for performing a good deed and rescuing a gentile nation from its oppressors.
Avraham sees himself as a leader and as a role model for all the other nations. If he has no progeny, he hopes at least to leave a powerful legacy of honesty and fairness. Thus he cannot allow himself to be associated with even the slightest trace of deceitful behavior. Lot’s shepherds may have a legal point, but in a country with so much available land free there is no justification for grazing in other people’s fields, and Avraham must separate from Lot in order to maintain his name and his goal in the world.
Correspondingly, every Jew as a descendant of Avraham is a bearer of Avraham’s legacy of integrity and cannot allow himself to be besmirched by associating with corrupt and sinful practices. If however, he is not directly involved in anything deceitful and merely provides services for wicked people without having to endorse their actions, this could be compared to Avraham’s willingness to assist evil people when they genuinely need his help. It would be advisable, however, to keep a low profile even in such situations, just as Avraham refused to accept any remuneration from Sodom, so that his money should not be associated with them. Ultimately he should endeavor to associate only with righteous people, as King Solomon says “That you may walk in the ways of good men, and keep the paths of the righteous” (Proverbs 2:2)