In this week’s portion, Chapter 13 of Genesis describes Abraham’s disengagement from his nephew Lot. The background to this development is clear. Both Abraham and Lot have become quite wealthy; their flocks have become numerous; the grazing lands are no longer large enough to meet their needs. Disputes break out between the shepherds of Abraham and Lot.
So Abraham tells Lot: “Let there be no arguments between the two of us or between our shepherds, because, after all, we are brothers.” Abraham suggests that they part ways. “If you go left then I will go right, and if you go right then I will go left.” Immediately agreeing to Abraham’s proposal, Lot chooses the Jordan plain and Abraham settles in the Land of Canaan. They separate.
The story seems straightforward. Yet sensitive, as always, to subtle nuances in the biblical narrative, our sages exposed another dimension.
Following the story of the disengagement, the Torah continues the narrative: “And God spoke to Abraham after Lot parted from him…” It is clearly a new sentence, yet the Torah inserts the word “and,” “And God spoke to Abraham,” indicating a sequence. God, the Midrash suggests, had spoken also about the separation between uncle Abraham and his nephew Lot.
What did God say about the matter? The Midrash cites two perspectives. Rabbi Nechemiah believes that God approved. Abraham, who was childless at the time, erroneously saw in Lot his heir, both materially and spiritually. This was a role Lot could not live up to, and the separation was thus productive.
However, Rabbi Yehuda presents an opposing view: God was profoundly critical of Abraham’s decision to part ways with Lot. “Anger was directed towards our patriarch Abraham when Lot, his nephew, left him. God said: ‘He befriends everyone, he cleaves to everybody, but he cleaves not to Lot – his own brother!'”
This is a sharp critique. Abraham was the biblical paradigm of love and kindness; a heart open to people of all background and walks of life, ready to embrace them with a glowing heart and a delicious meal, opening vistas to their spiritual yearnings and aching souls. Abraham was the first human being to reach out beyond his own community of faith, turning monotheism from an inner-circle tradition to a world phenomenon. Wandering Arab Bedouins felt comfortable in Abraham’s presence as did men of great scholarship and prestige.
Yet when it came to family, the rules were altered. “He cleaves to everyone,” God laments, “but he cleaves not to Lot – his own brother.” With his own nephew, he somehow cannot find the right approach and appropriate words to maintain the loving connection.
Let us not be swift to judge Abraham. Lot was a deeply troubled soul. He most certainly experienced a love-hate relationship with Abraham. Abraham raised him and nurtured him, yet Lot was aware that his own father, Haran, was killed because of his support for Abraham. In Lot’s eyes, Abraham was indirectly responsible for his misery; and yet Lot needed Abraham for his survival. This creates a quite complicated family dynamic. Perhaps Abraham felt that at this point Lot desperately needed to make it on his own, to establish his independence, and deal with his skeletons – away from the powerful presence of Abraham.
More ideas have been suggested by the biblical commentators as to the value of the disengagement. But God was still upset! You know how to embrace the entire world, could you really not find a way to embrace your own kin? You know how to invoke the name of a healing God in the hearts of strangers; can’t you generate healing in the heart of your brother?
The excuses may have been valid; the situation was indeed difficult. But God could still not tolerate the very dichotomy: How can you attract the entire world, yet alienate your own brother?
We often encounter people who are kind, gracious, and non-judgmental – as long as they are dealing with strangers. Yet within their family, there is strife, animosity, and deception. They can embrace the most remote stranger, but with their own brother they are often not on speaking terms.
“Family love is messy, clinging, and of an annoying and repetitive pattern, like bad wallpaper,” Nietzsche said. His own family history was indicative of this. The man considered to be the greatest philosopher of modern times was at some point loathed by most of his friends. The fact remains that it is often easier to capture the attention of the masses than the heart of your children. You can be a celebrity to millions, but a menace to those who should cherish you most.
The rabbis in the Midrash were sensitive to the truth of Judaism, that God is intolerant of a universal soul who has not the time and patience to cultivate loving and genuine relationships within his or her own family. Before you embrace a stranger, make sure you learn how to embrace your own brother; before you save the world, make sure you save your marriage. Before you rise up to give a brilliant presentation to the 300 employees in your company, make sure you are on speaking terms with your parents and siblings.
“He befriends everyone, but he cleaves not to his own brother!” How is it that sometimes we know how to be there for everybody else, besides our own?
Abraham, at the end, internalized God’s critique. When his nephew was in danger, he risked his life to save his. At a moment of danger, Abraham was there for Lot like nobody else would be. The truly great heroes are those who are first heroes within their own families.