August 7, 2018

On valuing people and valuables (Lech Lecha)

If you take a close look at Parshat Lech Lecha it becomes evidently clear that a major theme in the parsha is the relationship between Avraham and his nephew Lot, and as Nechama Leibowitz (Studies in Bereishit pp. 122-123) beautifully explains, the verses themselves highlight why their relationship became strained over time.

We begin with Lot joining Avraham and Sarah on their journey to the promised land where we are told that ’Avram took his wife Sarai, and Lot his nephew, and all their wealth that they had amassed’ (Bereishit 12:5). It should be noted that this verse mentions family first and then wealth, as if to say that whatever happens, possessions should always be secondary to relationships.

Then, when Avraham ascends from Egypt with great wealth, we read: ‘So Avram went up from Egypt, he with his wife and all that was his, and Lot with him, to the south’ (13:1). Here we see that ‘all that was his’ has come between Avraham and Lot, hinting to the fact that the increased wealth accrued by Avraham (and Lot) is starting to put a serious strain on their relationship.

Soon after we are informed that ‘Lot also… had flocks, cattle and tents’ (13:5) and therefore, ‘the land could not support them dwelling together for their possessions were abundant’ (13:6). By this point it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong in this special relationship between uncle and nephew. Possessions have now taken priority over family and this has led to tension between the two. Avraham suggests that they part ways in order to avoid further conflict and Lot chooses to move to Sdom – a lush pasture but also a place where the people ‘were wicked and sinful toward God’ (13:13).

The impact of this choice is soon evident because we then read that ‘they captured Lot and his possessions – Avram’s nephew – and they left; for his was residing in Sdom’ (14:12). The word order here speaks volumes, because Lot’s possessions are mentioned even before his mere relationship to Avraham as a nephew implying that in the value system of Sdom, possessions always come before family.

Avraham has a choice to make. Does he expend the necessary effort and money and risk his life to save his nephew? As Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky points out, ‘according to the halakha, Avraham was not obligated to risk his life to save his nephew Lot’ (Emet L’Yaakov, Bereishit 14:14). Yet he does and by doing so Avraham shows his nephew that people should always come before possessions.

However, I also believe that through his intervention, Avraham offers a veiled rebuke to his nephew. We read that ‘[Avraham] brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman, Lot, with his possessions, as well as the women and the people’ (14:16). According to the Or HaChayim, this verse is written in this specific order to reflect the difficulty of redeeming the items and people, meaning that it was easier to save possessions than to save Lot and his possessions, and it was easier to save Lot and his possessions than to save the women and the people. Yet what Avraham is teaching Lot is that while wealth may be easier to deal with than family, people come first which is why he risked his life to save his nephew.

And how do we know that this was truly the attitude of Avraham? Because just a few lines later ‘the king of Sdom said to Avram, “Give me the people and take the possessions for yourself”’ (14:21) yet Avraham refuses.

Lech Lecha teaches us many things. It inspires us to hear the call of God and to journey to the promised land and it teachings us about the risks we should take to protect those we love. But in addition to these we see from our parsha that there are times when wealth and material possessions can fracture relationships, but what we learn from Avraham is that even when strains emerge in family relationships, and even when family makes the wrong choices, we must always do what we can to help them and show that people always come before possessions.

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