Can one land support a family?
The Torah is always contemporary, or at least it often feels that way to me. The levels of translation and interpretation, scaffolds on ancient foundations, are each generation’s attempts to derive from (or project upon) the text meanings that are, well, meaningful for that author’s current world. Whether you believe in the Divine or the human origin of the text, it functions as a response to the world, and thus narratives and laws often highlight very real and unsettling issues that endure and plague every era since the Torah’s emergence.
Take this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1–17:27). In it, God calls upon to Abram to depart all he has known and journey “to the land that I will show you. (12:1)” Abram faithfully follows these weighty instructions, losing the familiar in pursuit of the holy. We know very little about Abram at this point, nor is there any textual explanation as to why God chose him for the covenantal journey that would eventually birth the Jewish People.
But we do catch glimpses of Abram’s reality, one ordeal after another. The loss of his father just before God’s call (11:32), the loss of his ancestral home (12:1), the potential loss of his wife (12:10-20), and the loss of his nephew Lot (13:5-12) all precede the losses of Hagar and Ishmael (Ch. 21), the near sacrifice of Isaac (Ch. 22) and the loss of Sarah (23:2).
While this is not the totality of Abraham’s life (his name was changed by God in 17:5), nor is the linkage of losses above the only way to sequence his life, it is clear that while he was blessed with abundance of wealth and followers, his life involved quite a lot of grief. A compassionate reader, especially through a Jewish spiritual lens, feels this journey far deeper than scholarly analysis alone can define. This is hard stuff.
One particularly incisive reader of Abraham’s journey was the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, whose Torah commentary HaAmek Davar was based on talks he gave at the Yeshivah Volozhin.
The biblical text of Genesis 13:1-6 read as follows:
From Egypt, Abram went up into the Negeb, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with Lot. Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver, and gold. And he proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai, the site of the altar that he had built there at first; and there Abram invoked יהוה by name. Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together.
Whereas commentators like Rashi (1040-1105) and Sforno (1470-1550) believed that the final verse, “the land could not support them staying together,” indicates that their flocks required more plant life than one area could sustain, there is (for those who seek deeply) more there.
Abram and Lot are both blessed with plenty, more than enough. The land could not support them…. They could not dwell together… One familiar with Jewish text cannot help but hear the words of togetherness from Psalms: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together. (Ps. 133:1)” The very same word, “shevet” appears in both texts. It is good when family can sit together. It is hard when they cannot. Even a Promised land cannot support a family that cannot be close.
Hear the words of the Netziv:
ולא יכלו לשבת יחדו. הוא כפל לשון. ובא ללמדנו דלא משום שלא הספיקה מרעה הארץ לצאנם כמו דכתיב להלן ל״ו ז׳ ולא יכלה ארץ מגוריהם לשאת אותם מפני מקניהם. אלא משום שהיו הטבעים רחוקים ולא היה לוט לצוותא לאברם כי אם מרחוק. אבל יחדיו לא יכלו לשבת. ובאשר היה רכושם רב היו מוכרחים לפגוע זב״ז. והיתה פגישתם למשא על אברם ומ״מ לא מצא אברם עדיין לב להגיד לו להפרד עד.
[Commenting on “they could not dwell together:”] There is a doubling of language, which comes to teach that their inability to remain in the same place was not due to the insufficiency of pasture for their flocks. This is mentioned explicitly later in the text. Rather, it was due to their distant essences. Lot was only able to be connected with Abram from a distance. But together, they could not dwell. And because they both had so much, they encroached upon each other, and their interactions were heavy for Abraham, who hadn’t the heart to tell Lot to leave.
How heavy this text is. How honest it is too. How often the experience of family can be difficult, though how related hearts yearn for imagined closeness. Perhaps George Burns was correct when he quipped that “happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family. In another city.”
But perhaps there is an open-eyed dream suggested in the subtextual truths of Torah, our family’s sacred diary: there will always be enough if we choose to be connected with each other. The land can support us, if we choose to support each other.