Lech Lecha and Our Connection to Israel
By Rabbi Peretz Rodman
“That place alone is mine”, wrote an American poet, “not which belongs to me but to which I belong.” The idea of Eretz Yisrael, as home for the Jewish people and for individual Jews, as the place to which we belong, involves complex value choices with repercussions for every aspect of one’s life. And so it has been ever since Abraham.
In Parashah Lech Lecha, just a few verses after Abraham’s migration to Canaan, Abraham leaves Canaan for Egypt to seek refuge from famine. As before, his entourage includes his nephew Lot and Lot’s household. Soon they return together to Canaan encamping together at first, still keeping their distance from their indigenous neighbours. But they are about to go their separate ways.
Both men, the Torah tells us, had attained wealth. “Abraham was heavily laden with cattle, with silver and gold”. “Lot, too,” we read, “had flocks and herds and tents”. So great was their collective wealth that “the land could not support their dwelling together”.
This story presents us with a sort of ‘natural experiment’ in values clarification. Where does each of them settle? How do they decide? Is their wealth a factor in their respective choices? Do they take into consideration the nature of Canaanite society, which the Torah describes as having degenerated into debauchery and licentiousness?
The portrayal of Abraham and his nephew in Genesis lays out before us the basis of their choices, if we pay careful attention.
After describing Abraham’s possessions, our story continues: “He went on in stages from the Negev up to Bet El, to the place where his tent had been before, between Bet El and Ai, to the place of the altar he had made the first time. And Abraham invoked there the name of the LORD”. Abraham returns to the place he had first settled after having been commanded to “go forth [lech lecha]… to the land I will show you.” He wants this homecoming to reinforce for his household the values he had espoused before the detour to Egypt. The focus of his camp will be an altar. The centre of his consciousness in Canaan will be the relationship with the God at whose behest he had set out for that place.
Here is Lot’s thinking, by contrast: “Lot raised his eyes and saw the whole plain of the Jordan, saw that all of it was well-watered…like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt…. And Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan…. Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, and he set up his tent near Sodom.” Our narrator faces a challenge: will the reader, who has yet to learn much about Sodom that will later become clear, think back then to Lot’s choice? To ensure that we do not miss the point, Genesis adds now, in this story, “Now the people of Sodom were very evil offenders against the LORD.”
Lot’s choice seems directed by material considerations. The place he lived may have been Eden-like in its lushness (“well-watered…like the garden of the Lord”), but our narrator adds that one is reminded no less of Egypt. What irony, in light of later history! How ominous a portent!
Oh, and what neighbours! Imagine the goings-on in the towns down the road, Sodom and Gomorrah. That is where Lot’s herdsmen and even his children would have to go for trade, for services, and even for entertainment. Did Lot not consider what it would mean to live in close proximity to such towns?
Genesis does not focus our attention for long here on Sodom, although its king does play a role later in this parashah. In next week’s parashah, though, when two visiting “messengers” (i.e., angels) trek to Lot’s home, where do they find him? “And the two messengers came into Sodom at evening, when Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom.” A city’s gate, we learn elsewhere in the Bible, is where the council of elders gathers to deliberate over public issues. Lot, it seems, is no stranger here. And, sure enough, he invites the newly arrived messengers to his home—in Sodom itself. He is no longer living on the outskirts, no longer keeping a safe distance from the city and its corrupt inhabitants.
Now we are equipped to evaluate the ‘experiment’. The difference in their choices draws in sharp relief the difference between uncle and nephew. With such opposing considerations in how and where to settle, how could Abraham and Lot ever have stayed together? As the 19th-century commentator “Malbim” wrote, “‘They could not dwell together’ after Lot began to turn away from Abraham’s principles and way of life.”
For us today as well, living in Israel is a value choice, but not the ultimate one. Being part of the autonomous, culturally vibrant Jewish society in Eretz Yisrael enables us to make further choices that make clear what we truly value and affirm. Our choices speak not about what belongs to us, but about to what we ourselves belong.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based writer, translator, and teacher whose rabbinic work has enabled him to enjoy the warm hospitality of a number of Masorti communities in the U.K