Torah Study

Lot – Contradictions in Serving Hashem

Lot was Avraham Avinu’s nephew and Sarah Imeinu’s brother. He features in the Torah portions of Lech Lecha and Vayeira. He joins Avraham on his journey to Eretz Yisrael but parts from him when his shepherds clash with those of Avraham. He moves to Sedom, where he is kidnapped by the four kings in the great war and saved by Avraham. When HaShem destroys Sedom, He sends malachim to save Lot in Avraham’s merit. After he is saved, his two surviving daughters believed they were the only remaining people in the world; therefore, they caused him to become intoxicated twice so they could both conceive from him. The nations of Moav and Ammon came from these incestual relationships. He had four daughters, two of whom died in Sedom, as did his wife, Idis.

Avraham Avinu’s nephew Lot is one of the most enigmatic characters in the Torah. Several passages in the Torah indicate that he possessed a certain level of righteousness, and while others suggest that he had many flaws.

On the one hand, he is one of the only people who join Avraham on his spiritual journey to Eretz Yisrael, showing a sense of self-sacrifice and willingness to learn from this great man; he consistently excels in chesed, even risking his life to host strangers in Sedom; he is complimented by Chazal for his self-control in not revealing that Avraham and Sarah were married; he even eats matzos on Pesach![1] Moreover, he never seems to commits any clear, deliberate sin.

On the other hand, he shows a great love of money and znus, which causes him to leave Avraham and settle in the evil city of Sedom; he lets himself get drunk and be seduced by his younger daughter even after realizing the same happened the previous night with his elder daughter; his shepherds allow their sheep to graze on other people’s land; and worst of all, when he separates from Avraham, the Medrash tells us that he says, “I don’t want Avraham or his G-d.”[2] This is particularly difficult, because even after this strong statement, Lot seems to recognize HaShem as the true G-d.[3]

To understand this complex portrait, it is instructive to turn to an incident in parashas Vayishlach. Yaakov Avinu, on his return to Eretz Yisrael, sends a message to his hostile brother, Esav: “I lived with Lavan.” Rashi elaborates on Yaakov’s words: “I lived with the evil Lavan and kept the 613 mitzvos – I did not learn from his evil ways.”[4] Yaakov is telling Esav that he has maintained his righteousness despite living with Lavan for so many years. However, Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, ztz”l, asks, why must Yaakov say the second part of the sentence, about not learning from Lavan’s evil ways? If Yaakov kept all the mitzvos, obviously he did not learn from Lavan’s evil ways! Rav Ruderman answers that, in truth, shemiras hamitzvos and not learning from reshaim do not necessarily go hand in hand. A person can observe all the mitzvos and nevertheless be influenced by values that are alien to Torah.[5] A person can know that there is a G-d and that He gave the Torah to the Jewish people on Har Sinai. As a result, he grudgingly follows the Torah, because if he does not, the consequences will be very unpleasant. However, his aspirations in life do not coincide with the Torah’s view, and he may devote himself to such goals as making money, hedonism, or acquiring power and honor – yet all the while he will not explicitly break any laws of the Torah.

Lot represents the classic example of this duality. This is illustrated by a glaring contradiction at the beginning of Lech Lecha. Describing Avraham’s departure for Eretz Yisrael, the Torah says that “Avraham went as HaShem had commanded him, and Lot went with him.” Yet the very next verse says, “Avraham took his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot.” At first Lot went willingly with Avraham, but then Avraham needed to take him forcefully. It seems that there were two conflicting forces guiding Lot’s actions. He recognized that there was one G-d and that this truth required accompanying Avraham on his spiritual journey. Nonetheless, he did not wish to leave behind his whole life for a spiritual quest; he loved money, and traveling as a pauper did not promise great riches!

With this explanation we can approach Lot with a whole new level of understanding. He recognized the truth in Avraham’s teachings and the obligations that accompanied this recognition. Consequently, he never blatantly transgressed any mitzvos. He observed Pesach and hachnasas orchim, because he knew it was required of him.[6] However, his goals in life were not to achieve closeness to G-d and develop himself spiritually. Instead he was driven by a desire for pleasure, epitomized by money and znus.

What happens when a person faces this dichotomy, knowing he must observe the Torah – because it is true – but driven by goals that conflict with it? Lot’s actions answer this question. He could never bring himself to sin, but deep down he wanted to fulfill his desires. Consequently, even after realizing what had happened with his eldest daughter, he allowed himself to be seduced the next night in order to satisfy his taivah without blatantly doing so.

Lot’s life decisions clearly indicate where his heart lay. He chose to leave Avraham and live in Sedom, showing a clear preference for gashmius over ruchnius. It is hard to say that this action was technically forbidden, but it clearly reflects where his desires lay. We can also understand how Lot could say he wanted no part of Avraham or HaShem and yet continue to observe certain mitzvos. This statement was a rejection of Avraham’s outlook on life, which emphasized closeness to G-d and rejection of base physicality. However, Lot knew there was a G-d whose instructions had to be followed.

When a person lives his life acknowledging the truth of Torah but simultaneously pursuing goals alien to spirituality, his descendants and students inevitably follow in his footsteps and degenerate even further. This syndrome explains the behavior of Lot’s shepherds. The Torah does not say that Lot explicitly instructed them to steal; however, they were strongly influenced by his love of wealth. Therefore, tending their flocks – their assets – was more important to them than avoiding gezel. Consequently, they created a dubious justification of their thievery. This dichotomy is also apparent in Lot’s daughters. Rashi cites a medrash that their intention was for the sake of promiscuity. However, the Gemara[7] says that they were trying to do a mitzvah![8] Maharal explains that they were driven by both znus and the mitzvah![9] It seems that they inherited these contradictory desires from their father.

These two elements of Lot manifest themselves later in history in the form of two of his descendants, Ruth and Orpah. These daughters of King Eglon of Moav marry Jewish men but become widowed. They choose to leave their birthplace and accompany their mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Eretz Yisrael from Moav. They are prepared to give up their royal status and join Naomi in poverty. Naomi repeatedly discourages them, Orpah finally gives in and returns to her life in Moav. Ruth, however, persists in her desire to remain with Naomi and convert to Judaism. This is a key moment in history – the two sisters are torn between the truth of Torah and the “good life” in Moav. Lot grappled with the same conflict: truth versus taivah. In the case of Ruth and Orpah, the two attitudes split between the two women. Orpah is pulled by the same desires that plagued Lot – Chazal tell us that on the very day she returned to Moav, she committed many gross acts of znus. The culmination of her decision was her great-grandson Goliyas, a man devoid of spirituality. Ruth, in contrast, clung to that part of Lot that knew the truth. She realized that she was undertaking a very difficult task in life, but she knew that it was the only true path. Her decision to cling to the truth ultimately led to the birth of David HaMelech and will produce Mashiach.

Our job is to emulate Ruth and let our deep recognition of the truth be our driving force. This is not easy in today’s society. The Western world insists that the source of happiness and success is physical satisfaction, money, honor, and power. It is quite possible to observe the mitzvos yet be driven by these goals. The account of Lot teaches us about the consequences of such an attitude. A person’s observance will inevitably be compromised when he is faced with a conflict of interest between these multiple driving forces. For example, a person must ask himself: Is my main goal to make a living or to grow close to HaShem? Of course, making a living is important, but only as a means to an end, a way of providing for one’s family so all can live a rich Torah life. If a person views his career as the source of his happiness, he will be pulled away from ruchnius; his Torah learning and working on himself will suffer. Many other life decisions are determined by a person’s true aspirations: how much time he spends involved in mitzvos as opposed to making money; where he chooses to live and send his children to school. These areas do not involve explicit issurim, but they define whether a person’s life is driven by a desire to do ratzon HaShem or something else.

Moreover, when a person’s desires battle his knowledge of the truth, he will very likely cut corners in halachah, justifying such questionable behavior as mixing with the opposite gender, or lowering his standards in kashrus in order to mix with his non-Jewish business associates. We also learn from Lot that if we follow his path, then our children and students will do the same, but eventually the powerful pull of Western society will overcome the deep recognition of truth. The only way to avoid this disastrous but all too common phenomenon is to clarify why we observe the Torah: because of a grudging recognition that we have to, or because we know that it is the only way of living a truly meaningful life?

May we all, like Ruth, play our role in bringing Mashiach.


Notes and Sources


[1] Rashi, Bereishis 19:3.

[2] Bereishis Rabbah 41:7, quoted by Rashi, Bereishis 13:11.

[3] Which is implied by his hachnasa orchim and observance of Pesach.

[4] Bereishis 32:5.

[5] Heard from Rav Yissocher Frand, shlita.

[6] Many commentators say that Lot’s hachnasas orchim was largely a function of habit, but it seems likely that there was some element of righteousness behind his acts of chesed.

[7] Horayos 11a.

[8] The mitzvah being to repopulate the world – they believed that the whole world had been destroyed and that, as the only people left, they had to procreate with their father in order to continue mankind.

[9] Maharal, Gur Aryeh, Bereishis 19:33.


From the book “Beacons of Light”


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