The Torah does not shy away from portraying people in absolute terms, for example, Noah as “righteous”, Yishmael as “wild”, Esau as “a hunter” and Jacob as “sincere”. Not so Lot, nephew of Abraham, who is a picture of contradiction, as he oscillates between a life of selfishness and selflessness, hedonism and heroism.
Having been raised by Abraham and Sara, both paragons of faith, morality, and a unique brand of altruism, one wonders why Lot chose to link his fate to the people of Sodom, notorious for their lewd lifestyle and culture of cruelty.
What led Lot to reject Abraham’s values at first chance, only to later revert back to them in part, and at great personal cost?
The Midrash tells how Abraham’s father, Terah, a devout idolator, turned his monotheistic son over to the authorities hoping they would reform his deviant ways.
The Midrash says: “Nimrod cast Abram into a fiery furnace, and Haran (Abram’s brother and Lot’s father) thought to himself, ‘If Abram is victorious, I’m on his side, and if Nimrod is victorious, I’m on his side.’”
This vignette suggests Lot’s expediency may have been rooted in his father’s opportunism, and his willingness to trade principle for profit was inherited from his father. If this is the case, Lot’s inner tug-of-war was a manifestation of the tension he inhabited, created by a clash of nature and nurture, character and culture, essence and education.
The Midrash continues: “After Abram was saved (from the furnace), they said to Haran, ‘Whose side are you on?’ Haran said to them, ‘I’m on Abram’s side!’ They cast him into the fiery furnace and he was burned.”
Having lost his father so suddenly and terrifyingly – and as a consequence of faith no less – is it any wonder he experiences a lifelong crisis of faith and righteousness? It is because of his ambiguities and paradoxes, that Lot is so relatable.
His moral victories, however few and far between, give us hope that whatever challenges we may have faced, we need not be defined by our past or personality, and are always capable of accessing what Victor Frankel called “the last of human freedoms – the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
Mendel Kalmenson is rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London