You have heard the question, “Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?” Everyone has their own response to that thought experiment – I’m not a very good swimmer so I would not want to be a fish at all, and in any event don’t think I would be one for very long.
The figure of Lot in the Torah is in a way that of a small fish in a big pond – the pond is the Torah, the big fish are Abraham, Sarah, Moses and the like, and the smaller fish are everyone else. He is certainly a member of the supporting cast, yet there is more text devoted to him than all but a few non-major figures. It is difficult to evaluate his character. There are all of these “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” when it comes to what we know about him. On the one hand, he went with Avram to Canaan. On the other hand, as Avram’s nephew and his brother having passed away, he didn’t really have a choice in the matter. On the one hand, he became successful in the land of Israel. On the other, even his generous-of-spirit uncle had to separate from him. On the one hand, he did not protest, and on the other he chose to go to the area of Sodom, which was both fertile and also corrupt.
And it goes on – he is taken captive and he is rescued by Abraham. Yet instead of turning things around and maybe moving out of town, he stays. And the penultimate story – the last one is not so family-friendly – appears in the part of the Torah portion that we are reading out loud today. You’ll recall (no doubt!) that three angels appeared to Abraham last week and one delivered the news that Sarah would give birth the following year. Two of those angels journey on to Sodom, where they show up at Lot’s door. The angels knew that destruction was about to “rain down” in the form of fire and brimstone. Would they tell Lot, and would he listen?
It is likely that this was their mission and they were not able to turn back from it even if they wanted to. Still it is heartening that in this narrative we see, and most agree it is genuine, that Lot is much more hospitable than his famously cold-hearted neighbors. The people of Sodom, according to rabbinic interpretation, were notoriously unhospitable. Many midrashim tell of the unwelcoming nature of the city’s residents. If a poor person should wander into town looking for help everyone in the town would give him a dinar, a coin. Seems helpful, right? Except that they would write their name on it, and by common agreement no one would give him food, and when he died everyone came back and took their dinar. So it went, and by telling these stories the rabbis were saying “don’t be like that.”
So the angels turn up, again in the form of men, and the Torah tells us explicitly that Lot saw them, he rose to greet them, and then practically begs them to come to his house to spend the night. They demur but he prevails, and they eat. Soon a crowd gathers to attack them and he defends the strangers. If they were testing him, it seems that he passed, because soon after they tell him of God’s plan for the city. He gets out, and other than the story about how he thought the earth was now destroyed and he had to repopulate it, we never hear from him again. We have no idea when or how he dies, and the Torah’s judgment of him remains in something of a state of suspended animation.
What can we make of this figure of Lot? A wanna-be Abraham who never quite measures up, whose acts of kindness are tinged with some darkness? A well-meaning but misguided figure who serves as a counterpoint to the generally better role modeling of Abraham? Or a figure that is meant to cause the reader to continue to discuss what acts create and maintain good character traits, whether doing good or being good are two different things, and how a reputation is about as precious a thing as we are given the opportunity to try to establish and maintain, to the best of our necessarily limited abilities. (As someone in our Intro class pointed out last night, we don’t know anyone who named their kid “Lot”!)
If Lot is an ambiguous character – awkward segue warning here – some parts of the world including our own noted that this past Thursday was the 100th anniversary of an important document in Jewish and Zionist history. The Balfour declaration, first presented in 1917, declared that the British viewed with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.
A lot of the press coverage this week of that anniversary centered on how those who have felt shortchanged by the establishment of the state of Israel and how it has built itself up and flourished, in part thanks to an engaged an involved Diaspora but mostly because of its own hard work. For Israel, it has been an important reminder of a historical event that is viewed by many as a watershed for modern Zionism, a necessary piece of the puzzle that would eventually lead to the founding of the state.
But even in this document there is something rather ambiguous. Remember that this was 1917 – it was the middle of World War I, Britain was trying to get the United States to enter the war, and some think this was at least in part a chess game to please some influential American Jews who could then in turn make the case for joining the fight, knowing that if Britain and the allies were to lose then the dream of Israel would probably be delayed for a much longer period of time.
Even more impactful about that year, 1917, is that in the 30 years between the declaration of the British government and the declaration of Ben Gurion to found the state, the worst catastrophe of our history took place. If the stated goal of the Balfour declaration had been acted on earlier then who knows how many Jews could have been saved. That is a ‘what-if’ that is unanswerable, and it underscores one of the profound differences of Jews living in a world without Israel, and we who get to live in a world with Israel. With all the complexities and challenges of the Israel-Diaspora dynamic, there is no doubt that for our worldwide Jewish community, we are grateful that the affirmation of the Balfour declaration, and much more importantly, the sweep of Jewish history, has landed us in a place where we can connect and commit to Israel in so many different ways.