The story of Lot’s encounter with the two angels in this week’s reading is a curious one. In our minds we tend to perceive Lot as an outsider, related to Abraham but not part of Abraham’s camp. He was a tag-along, cared for by Abraham until he could stand on his own feet. We witnessed his defection in last week’s reading, choosing the lush plains near Sodom over the company of Abraham.
Each year we tend to see things differently, since our perception of things change as we ourselves change. Reading the narrative this week, it struck me that Lot is very much alive and with us. Lot is representative of a large segment of Jewry. The lush pastures of Sodom might be the lower prices of chocolate pudding in Berlin or an enticing job offer and quality of life in a place far from a Torah center. Like Lot, many of us forfeit the company of Abraham for the greener grass on the other side.
Lot was clearly affected by the influence of his neighborhood. Sodom was an evil place, hostile to those who were different than they. They resented people who would be a drain on the resources of their society and they even implemented laws to ensure that no one gained from the work of others. It was forbidden to give charity or handouts to people who had nothing. Travelers could not be offered accommodation by local residents. This likely irked Lot at first, but he no doubt grew to accept it after living with it for a short while. People learn to adapt, and evil can be tolerated through habit just like virtue.
Nevertheless, Lot’s years in Abraham’s household had also left an imprint. The old instinct of inviting in guests and travelers was still an ember in Lot’s gut. Seeing the two travelers he was drawn to offer them his hospitality. Although they initially declined his offer Lot persisted and the travelers relented, following Lot home through some back alleys so that his hospitality would go undetected.
One way or another the residents of Sodom found out about the guests and they all amassed at Lot’s door, demanding he send out his guests for some special Sodom ‘hospitality.’ As the story goes, Lot attempted to dissuade them and they began harassing Lot instead until the visiting angels intervened.
Although Lot had left the house of Abraham, choosing another lifestyle and departing from the teachings of Abraham, he retained the values Abraham had imparted. He would not have gone out of his way to find guests, perhaps, but when strangers showed up Lot took them in despite the law of the land. Lot may not have offered his guests the finest cheeses in his larder as Abraham would have, but he stuck his neck out to defend his guests when they were threatened by hostile residents. No, Lot was not Abraham, but his behavior demonstrates that a spark of Abraham was still in him. Lot’s colors may have been blunted and dimmed but they were still the colors of Abraham’s flag.
Finally, it was time to leave the city and the angels were pressing Lot to move out. They could not begin the task of destructing the place until Lot was safely out of town. Here Lot faced a difficult and pivotal choice. Would he leave everything he had built, all his prosperity and the standing he had worked so hard to develop? This was no simple choice and it is a choice few of us can truly relate to. Many Jews had to face similar dilemmas in our turbulent history. In 1492 the Spanish expulsion demanded this choice of many Jews. Would they indeed leave everything they had and knew for the integrity of their faith? The great exodus of Jews from Spain at that time was remarkable as it was tragic. Over 50,000 Jews died on the march from Spain due to illness and poverty. Many thousands, however, survived and their legacy is alive and well, carried by their descendants in the Jewish world today. The great Don Isaac Abarbanel is among those who gave up everything. A great scholar of Torah, Don Isaac Abarbanel was also an esteemed adviser and minister to the King of Spain. Today thousands of Jews descended from him are part of Jewish society in different parts of the world.
On the other hand, many Jews could not bear giving up their wealth and property, their positions in society and home environment. They went underground, secretly practicing Judaism but overtly practicing Christianity. Abraham Senor was one such individual, a prominent and wealthy Jew in Spain. He had financed the exploration of Chistopher Colombus. No descendants of Abraham Senor are known of today. Numerous people have family traditions reminiscent of Jewish laws and customs, but there is no way to trace back evidence of their lineage. For the few who still identify as those secret Jews, many tens of thousands have been lost. We are in no place to judge those Jews, not having been in such dire circumstances ourselves, but we can understand why the Torah writes that Lot hesitated in that final moment.
The angels seized his hand and the hands of his wife and two daughters while there was still time and rushed them out of the city. Now came the true test. Could Lot resist looking back? Could Lot let go of his past, release his bond with Sodom and look only to his future return to the ways of Abraham? Lot’s wife was unable to disconnect from the past. She had become too assimilated and had absorbed the values of Sodom to the extent she could not break away. Lot, however, succeeded in breaking away from his past and from the ways of Sodom. The teachings of Abraham, long imprisoned in the chambers of Lot’s heart, were set free and steered him in the right direction, enabling him to proceed to a new life and escape the fate of Sodom.