This week we are reading Genesis chapter 19 verses 1-21, a part of the story of Abraham we usually gloss over – certainly it is not one that is described in detail in our cheder syllabus!
At the beginning of our parashah, Abraham is sitting outside his tent in Mamre when he sees three strangers approaching. His eager welcome, generous hospitality and the discovery that the guests are messengers of God who prophecy that Sarah will have a child give the story a happy ending.
In what we read this Shabbat, we have another example of hospitality, but one that is rather less straightforward. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, receive a visit from two of the messengers in his home in Sodom. Lot is sitting at the gates of the city when he sees them approaching. He immediately offers to take them home to spend the night and insists, in spite of their protests that they would be happy sleeping in the square. He is no less generous than Abraham, but he has a different motive as becomes clear when the residents of the town besiege his house demanding the strangers be given up to them for sexual pleasure. It becomes clear that Lot’s sitting by the gate was no accident – that being aware of the nature of the townsmen around him he was on the lookout for any unsuspecting stranger in order to offer them protection. One immediately asks – why did he continue to live in Sodom? How can one exist in a day-to-day relationship with people who show such flagrant abuse one of another? Abraham was a nomad, moving from one society to another, never part of the culture around him. It is far easier to maintain the moral high ground in such a position, you might think. Lot, though is an uncompromising ‘townie’. When he flees Sodom for an unknown destination he begs God to let him go instead to a small town nearby because he claims, he will die if forced to run to the hills.
But if you live in a city, living cheek by jowl with other people, trying to be part of the society, it is inevitable that some of that society’s values rub off. So it is, that in a desperate attempt to protect the strangers, Lot offers his daughters to the townsmen instead. Clearly his sojourn has made his moral compass rather confused. But Abraham twice makes a similar gesture, pretending his wife, Sarah is his sister when encountering Pharaoh and Avimelech. He must know that such a claim would put her in a very compromising position. He does not have Lot’s excuse that it is the company he keeps – this is his own idea thought out in advance of the situation, not once, but twice! Moreover, both stories end in morally dubious actions. Lot ends up sleeping with his daughters; Abraham, trying to sacrifice his son.
Yet, in spite of this, both characters have their place in Jewish tradition. Lot is rather like Noah; trying his best to lead a decent life in an indecent world. Like most of us, he means well but gets things rather out of proportion. Abraham is the pioneer, the innovator, bringing to the world a new idea – the idea of God. But despite his lofty ideals, he too is human and makes the wrong judgement from time to time. These stories do not shie away from the reality that life is exceedingly complicated, that even with God’s guidance, we can never be sure of what’s right and what’s wrong in any given situation. All we can do is our best and use the examples of our patriarchs to tell us how not to live our lives as much as how to do so.
Sybil A. Sheridan