By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
I am Lote ben Haran. You may have heard of me, and not in a good way. Yes: I admit it was I who fled Sodom and Gomorrah, lost my wife, and had that—unfortunate occurrence—with—um—family members. But that is not the way I would have chosen to be remembered throughout all time, in the Holy Books, in the Torah. No. Think of me, rather, as a founder—co-founder, at least—of Abraham’s Religion. Yes. That would be nice.
For am I not mentioned there, in the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion? No? Well, I am, at least, listed at the end of Noah, the preceding story: there! “Terach took his son Avram, his grandson Lote ben Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Avram, and they went together from the City of the Chaldeans to journey to the Land of Canaan” (Genesis 11: 31).
So, you see, I was with Uncle Abe from the beginning—though he never liked me to call him by that name. No: for him, it was always, “Avraham Avinu,” “Abraham, Our Father,” like some lofty idol himself, which is ironic, for he was a man who made his mark on the world by fighting against idol-worship. Well, that’s all done. There are no idol-worshipers, anymore. Or are there? I cannot say….
Uncle Abe was a shepherd and a tradesman, through and through. Even when he got older and could easily have passed the business on to me, he still came to the office every morning. I would be sitting there with Eliezer—good fellow, that; he was our Chief Shepherd, and so devoted to the Boss—I mean, Uncle Abe—he would have died for him. I myself was Chief Financial Officer, which is no small thing, when your finances depend upon goats, sheep, cows, and donkeys. Still, I preferred them over dealing with human beings, as I learned when I lived in Sodom and Gomorrah.
On that particular morning, Eli and I were going over the papyrus records of the week’s receipts. I was thinking of switching over to clay tablets; the Phoenicians to the North had done so, and it was the latest technological advancement in the record-keeping field. When you’re dealing in livestock, quickly shipping your fleece, cheese, milk and meat to the customer is your Number One priority….
Anyway, Uncle Abe came abruptly into the office-tent, and couldn’t seem to settle down on his usual corner mat, facing the door; he sat there, chewing at a straw, but both Eli and I could tell something was bothering him. Avram looked odd: his hair and beard were all disheveled, as if he hadn’t slept properly, and he was crouching there, like a caged animal, mumbling in that absent-minded way that Aunty Sarai had warned us about.
From time to time, he would get up, sweep his massive grey Bedouin’s-cloak behind him, as if ready to leap onto a camel or donkey, and ride off to—where? Then, he would tip-toe to the tent-flap, peel it back ever-so-slightly, and peer out at the desert, far beyond the City’s walled-and-gated boundaries. It was making us nervous.
“Agorah-coin for your thoughts, Uncle?” I ventured, in as innocent a tone as I could.
“Journey far—He wants me—all of us, I mean—to journey to the Far Land,” Avram would whisper, through his cracked lips—Aunty Sarai was always after him to smear some olive-oil-balm on ‘em, but he, old fellow that he was, could never remember. And he wasn’t eating properly, either; I could make out the cheekbones in his lean and narrow face.
He was beginning to resemble a hawk of the desert, he was. Eli and I stole a glance at each other; I could tell the boy was worried: was the Boss losing his mind?
“Journey where, Lord Avram?” I asked, switching to the formal address that I knew he preferred, as the Head Sheikh of our little family desert tribe.
He turned, as if hearing my speech for the first time, and gave me a look to freeze my soul.
“What matters it to you, Lote ben Haran?” he answered, in a voice both sad and almost sneering, “for your final destiny is not with me. You will die in a cave, off somewhere, forgotten.”
“My fate is with you, Milord,” I continued, switching from the familiar Hebrew to the more high-flown tones he was using, “Are we to enter the Desert, there to find the Answers to your Questions?”
“Only my God—the Mysterious One—can answer me, and only He sends me, to a Place, far-off from here,” my uncle replied, “Beyond that, He is silent.”
“What is there for you to find in the desert?” I asked, “What can you possibly lack here, in the City of the Chaldeans, here in the farthest-advanced Metropolis on the face of this earth, gifted to us by the sky-god Marduk and the earth-goddess Tiamat?”
Before my eyes, Avram began to tremble.
“Those idols do not live in my House!” he shouted, “For we worship only the Invisible God, the One True God! And I swear to you, Lote, Son of Haran, my nephew, that my God will, by my sword and my faith, one day, rule this entire world!”—he paused, breathing heavily; Eliezer went to assist him, offer him water, but Avram waved him off, gasping for breath; he was no youngster, after all—and continued: “I must go out now, to tell Sarai my wife to pack. We must leave tonight, guided by my God and the stars—I will find what my God has in store for me, and for all humanity; yes, for the Egyptians in the South, and for all the World, from the Phoenicians in the North, and all the undiscovered lands beyond—I must go—“
He pushed back the tent-flap, and was gone. Eliezer and I were left alone, shaking our heads.
“The Old Man has lost his mind, for certain,” said Eliezer, clicking his tongue.
“That makes no difference to you or me, Eli,” I answered, “We are responsible to him, to Aunty Sarai, and to the business. If the Boss-man says we must wander through the desert, we do not question; we just close the office, pack up the records, and ready the flock to move. You and I must gather the Boys, and see to it. Is Tsuribaal, the Assistant Chief Shepherd, back from his day off?”
Eliezer nodded. We both sighed, reached in the tent-corners for our heavy leather duffle bags, and began to pack….