Lech Lecha — How should we act when personal growth conflicts with helping others?
Lech Lecha introduces us to Avraham Avinu, the first Ba’al Teshuva, father of the Jewish people. Unlike with Noach, we are given no background or prior life stories. Instead, the parsha opens when Avraham was seventy-five years old, with Hashem telling him to Lech Lecha, “Go for yourself”.
Rashi explains that leaving his land, birthplace and father’s house is a difficult decision for three reasons —money, reputation and reproduction. When you move, you lose your business connections, your relationships and honor, and your privacy to have marital relations, as you’re staying a guest in another’s home. In short, one loses the three physical cravings, the three things for which G-d had previously punished the world.
G-d attempts to soothe him by blessing him: “I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” G-d promises Avram he will be repaid in spades, and moreover, he will be a blessing to all he wishes to bless.
A person’s natural instinct is to pick present gain for future possibility, but Avram defies nature. Avram is teaching the Jews that we must swim against the current, that we must build toward an impossibly ambitious future. By eschewing our physical distractions for what really matters, we will achieve the impossible and change the world for the better.
Our closeness to G-d must be personal. We must have courage to be the minority. Obstinacy and persistence marks the Jew, teaches R. Samson Raphael Hirsch.
That’s all a prelude to another question:
Since Sarai and Lot came with Avram, why doesn’t G-d address the question in the plural, “Go for yourselves?”
Avram was the epitome of Chesed, of loving kindness and connecting to G-d through helping others. He was willing to forsake prophesy with G-d for the entire time Lot, described as a rasha/wicked one, was with him (Rashi, Br. 13:14). G-d knew Lot wavered too much to fully commit himself to creating a bold world-changing future. Had G-d said, “Go for yourselves”, Lot’s wavering would have doomed the project from its start.
A Midrash (Rashi, Br 11:28) explains that Lot’s father, Haran, witnessed when Nimrod cast Avram into a fiery pit for destroying his father’s idols. “Haran said in his heart, ‘If Avram emerges victorious, I am of his. And so too if Nimrod.’ When Avram was saved…Haran said, ‘I am of Avram’s supporters.’ They cast him into the fiery pit and he was burned.”
Haran didn’t die believing in G-d; he died believing in Avram. He followed others rather than genuine commitment. Since his faith flip-flopped with the winners of the moment, he was consumed.
Lot follows his father’s path. Although Avram tries to reform him, and successfully imbues him with the habits of a refined man, he doesn’t desire to grow himself. Lot saw Sodom “like the garden of Hashem, like the land of Egypt.” Rashi explains, “Lot chose their neighborhood because they were steeped in lewdness, sexual immorality” (Br 13:14). Lot became the high justice of Sodom, using the habits of morality he got in Avram’s home, and the shared wealth Avram got in Egypt, in order to feed his three physical desires: money, reputation and illicit relations.
So now we understand why G-d couldn’t say “Go for yourselves” to include Lot.
Why then, did Avram go to such lengths to take care of Lot?
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Br. 4:9) Cain asked after killing his brother.
Avram is modelling the approach for one governed by Chesed, the extreme extents to which we must care for our brothers. Even though Lot is his nephew, Avram refers to him as brother, particularly when Lot gets kidnapped in Sodom and Avram must drop what he’s doing instantly to rescue him.
Since Avram was the focussed expression of lovingkindness, he reached out to many people, made many souls (“brought them in under the wings of the shekinah/divine presence” says Rashi on Br 12:5), and was even willing to lessen his personal relationship with G-d in order to bring others closer. The greater our Chesed, the better our influence on our community.
We each must make a personal evaluation of how we best connect to the world. As members of a community that’s mixed of Jews of all sorts of observances, we all can learn from Avram’s kindness. The best way to help one that’s disconnected is to show them kindness and model a praiseworthy way for them. But we must also recognize that our connection to Hashem, mitzvot and creating a better world does not rest on how those around us react to us. Show kindness, hospitality and willingness to fight and rescue, but “Go for yourself.”
When Lot is captured, Avram immediately goes to rescue him, trusting that G-d will protect him. The fugitive (Og) that told him about Lot’s capture wanted him killed so he could marry Sarah (Rashi, Br 14:13). Lot, immediately upon being rescued, returns to Sodom. There’s no sense of gratitude for Avram risking his life and spiritual level to nurture, raise and then save him. Even in next week’s parsha, after Sodom was destroyed and the angels begged Lot to return to Avram, he refused, opting instead for a cave all alone with his two daughters.
A person moved by loving kindness doesn’t care about the response, or the other person’s gratitude. They follow a deeper calling, led by their personal mission and directed by Hashem. Instead of merely not killing our brother, we’re given a role model who endangers his own life, both spiritually and physically, to save one even remotely connected to him.
Now we understand the first Rashi, where he says “Go for Yourself” means “For your pleasure (physical) and for your benefit (soul).” When we direct ourselves toward what really drives us, when we ignore the distractions and fleeting pleasures of now for the impossible dreams of tomorrow, we get both physical and spiritual pleasure. We accomplish the impossible, defeating four armies of trained warriors on faith and hard work alone.
My blessing for you is that you learn from Avraham Avinu how to do good in the world. Don’t get discouraged when people don’t respond the way you’d like. Take your mission to heart, believe in it with all you have, and be a force for good in the world. The challenges of now could be what brings on the Mashiach tomorrow.
Bonus Kabbalah thought: The Zohar, our great Kabbalistic text, writes “With his prophetic vision, [Avraham] saw the Messiah, son of David, would descend from Lot.” Lot’s daughter gave birth through him to the Moabites, the ancestors of Ruth, David’s grandmother. For all the confusion and wavering, ultimately his bloodline led to Israel’s greatest king, from which the Messiah will emerge. We cannot know the effect our good has, for it stretches far beyond our knowledge. All we can do is dream the impossible, and work to achieve it every day.