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What really drove this conflicted character?
One of the most enigmatic characters in the Torah is Abraham’s nephew, Lot. There are a number of instances in the Torah which indicate that he possessed a certain level of righteousness and a number of other places which suggest that he had many flaws.
On the one hand he is one of the only people that join Abraham on his spiritual journey to the land of Israel, showing a sense of self-sacrifice and willingness to learn from Abraham; He consistently excels in kindness, even risking his life in Sodom to host strangers. He is complimented by the Sages for his self-control in not revealing that Abraham and Sarah were married. He even eats matzah on Pesach!
Moreover, he never seems to deliberately commit a clear sin.
On the other hand, he shows a great love of money and immorality which causes him to leave Abraham and settle in the evil city of Sodom.2 He lets himself be made drunk and seduced by his younger daughter after he realized what had happened the previous night with his elder daughter. His shepherds rationalize that it is permitted to allow their sheep graze on other people’s land. And worst of all, when he separates from Abraham, the Midrash tells us that he says, “I don’t want Abraham or his God.3” This is particularly difficult, because we see that even after this strong statement, Lot seemed to still have a recognition that God was the true God4.
What makes Lot even more puzzling, is that he seems to play a pivotal role as an ancestor of King David and the Messiah - why is he so significant in the line to the Messiah?
To answer these questions it is instructive to turn to Jacob and his return to Israel (in Parshat Vayishlach) where he sends a message to his hostile brother Esau, “I lived with Lavan.” Rashi elaborates on Jacob’s words: “I lived with the evil Lavan and I kept the 613 mitzvot and I did not learn from his evil ways.5” Jacob is telling Esau that he has maintained his righteousness despite living with Lavan for so many years. However, the question is asked; why did Jacob need to say the second part of the sentence about not learning from Lavan’s evil ways? If Yaakov kept all the mitzvot then obviously he did not learn from Lavan’s evil ways!
He answers that, in truth, observing the commandments and not learning from the ways of wrongdoers do not necessarily go hand in hand. A person can keep all the mitzvot and nevertheless be influenced by values that are alien to Torah6. A person can know the truth -- that there is a God and that He gave the Torah -- and that this recognition requires following His commands. As a result, he grudgingly accepts that he must follow the Torah because if he does not then the consequences will be very unpleasant. However, his life goals do not coincide with the Torah’s view, and he may devote his life to such goals as making money, hedonism, or acquiring power and honor, and all the while he would not explicitly break any laws of the Torah.
Lot represents the classic example of this duality. This is demonstrated by a glaring contradiction in the verses at the beginning of Lech Lecha. The Torah, describing Abraham’s departure to Israel, says that, “Abraham went as God had commanded him, and Lot went with him.” The very next verse says that, “Abram took Sarai his wife and his nephew Lot.7” At first Lot went willingly with Abraham, but then Abraham 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 Abraham on his spiritual journey. However, whilst knowing the truth, his desires in life did not necessarily include leaving 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 Abraham’s teachings and the obligations that accompanied this recognition. Consequently he never blatantly transgressed any Torah mitzvot. He actively observed Pesach and welcoming guests because he knew that was required of him. However, his goal in life was NOT to achieve closeness to God and to develop himself spiritually. Instead he was driven by a desire for pleasures, epitomized by money and lust. What happens when a person is faced with this dichotomy - he knows that he must keep the Torah because it is true but he is 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 he became aware of what had happened with his elder daughter, he nevertheless allowed himself to be seduced the next night in order that he could fulfill his lust without blatantly doing so.
Another outcome of Lot’s character is that he made life decisions that clearly indicated where his heart lay; he preferred to leave Abraham and live in Sodom, showing a clear preference of love of materialism over spirituality. It is hard to say that this action is technically forbidden but it clearly reflects where his desires lay. We can also now understand how Lot could say that he wanted no part in Abraham of God and yet continue to observe certain mitzvot! This statement was a rejection of Abraham’s outlook that emphasized closeness to God and rejection of base physicality. However, Lot still knew that there was a God whose instructions had to be followed. When a person lives his life acknowledging the truth of Torah but simultaneously pursuing goals alien to spirituality, the inevitable result is that his descendants and students will follow in his path and probably degenerate even further.
This also explains the behavior of Lot’s shepherds. The Torah never says that Lot explicitly instructed them to steal, however it is they were strongly influenced by his love of wealth. Therefore they placed greater priority to that goal than avoiding theft, and as a consequence they created a dubious excuse to justify their thievery.
The lessons of Lot are highly relevant in present-day society. Many sectors in the world persist in convincing us that the source of happiness and success is physical satisfaction, money, honor and power. It is quite possible for a person to observe the mitzvot and simultaneously 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 dual driving forces. It may effect how he chooses to spend his time - is his mail goal to make a living or to get close to God.
Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to make a living, but it should only be a means to an end, a way of providing for one’s family and enabling them to live a rich Torah life. Many other life decisions will be defined by a person’s true goals; how much time he spends involved in mitzvot as opposed to making money; where he chooses to live and where he sends his children to school. One may think that these areas do not involve explicit prohibitions but they define whether a person’s life is driven by a desire to do God’s will or something else. Moreover, we learn from Lot that if we follow his path, then our children and students will do the same, but eventually the powerful pull of the baser aspects of society will overcome the deep recognition of truth. The only way to avoid this disastrous but all too common phenomena is to clarify why we keep the Torah - is it because of grudging recognition that we have to, or also because we know that it is the best and indeed, only way of living a truly meaningful life.
The basis of this article about the character of Lot is based on the teachings of my Rebbi, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits.
2 Rashi, 13:10.
3 Lech Lecha, 13:11.
4 Which is implied by his hachnasa orchim and observance of Pesach.
5 Vayishlach, 32:5.
6 Heard from Rav Yissochor Frand.
7 Lech Lecha, 12:4-5.