Shammai Engelmayer

How Abram’s way trumps divided America

When it comes to immediate relevancy, last week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha, proved to be right on target.

The parashah began with a 75-year-old man hearing a voice in his head that he takes on faith to be God’s voice. It tells him to uproot himself from his comfort zone and his support system, and travel to an unnamed land — and that he and his posterity will be blessed for his doing so.

The parashah continues with a famine in Canaan, sending that 75-year-old man, Abram as he is known at the beginning of the parashah (it ends with his name being changed to Abraham), on a dangerous journey into Egypt.

A while later, when Abram is back in Canaan, a “world war” of sorts breaks out, pitting five Canaanite kings against the invading armies of four Mesopotamian monarchs — with Abram and his own private army joining in the war’s final battle. We will return to that war in a moment. (For the record, the Abram of the Torah text is a powerful desert sheikh, with at least 1,000 people in his camp, including an army of 318 men, who also has the support of powerful allies.)

One episode in the parashah that often gets little comment is the separation of Lot from his uncle Abram. Lot became Abram’s ward upon the death of his father, Abram’s brother Haran. Although the two men traveled everywhere together, and Abram clearly was in charge, Lot began amassing his own followers and possessions. Eventually, their camp became too large, and conflict ensued.

“And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle…” the Torah tells us. “Abram said to Lot, ‘Let there be no strife between you and me…for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: If you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.’” (See Genesis 13:7-9.)

The story often gets short shrift because it is probably nothing more than a set-up for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in this week’s parashah, Vayera. Only, because of what happened on Election Day and in the days following, this story and its aftermath have a great deal of relevance for us today.

This nation is like Abram and Lot: divided to the point that it can’t find common ground on which both sides can live. Half the voters in our nation cheered on election night as Donald Trump swept to victory. Half the voters in our nation woke up the next morning filled with great and unsettling fear.

I do not recall riots and demonstrations breaking out in my lifetime following a presidential election, but there continue to be such in the wake of this election from coast to coast, with thousands of people taking to the streets, some carrying signs saying “Not my president” and others chanting “Donald Trump go away. Racist, sexist, anti-gay.”

Something else I do not recall, in this case from 16 years ago: Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, but a Supreme Court decision gave George W. Bush the Electoral College, and that was that. Some people talked about reforming the Electoral College or scrapping it, but no one actually did anything about it.

That is not the case this time. One candidate won the popular vote by about 2 million votes — and apparently set a record for the most votes ever cast for a presidential candidate — but that candidate, Hillary Clinton, lost the Electoral College vote. So a petition began circulating, urging electors to cast their votes for the winner of the popular vote. Within the first 24 hours, that petition amassed 3.5 million signatures.

Confronted with a split in his camp, Abram chose separation — you go your way, Lot, and I’ll go mine. If you go right, I’ll go left.

Some time after that split, however, that “world war” referred to above broke out. The Mesopotamians won and took the spoils, which included Lot and his family, and all they possessed.

When Abram learned of this, he did not say, “a plague on Lot, we split up because we couldn’t live together peacefully.” Without a moment’s hesitation, he ordered his private army into battle, and he enlisted the armies of his three allies.

Abram and Lot may have had their differences; they may have gone one to the right and the other to the left, but in the end, they still were family. And family takes care of family.

America is a family, too.

At noon on January 20, 2017, the name of the president of the United States will change from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, and there is nothing anyone can do to change that.

We, all of us, regardless of where we stand, have no choice but to accept that. Our system of government requires that we come together after an election.

We, all of us, also have no choice but to be vigilant for the next two years and even the next four. We, all of us, have no choice but to get involved in our political system from the ground up if we want to avoid the chaos of Election 2016.

Donald Trump needs watching. Democrat, Republican, Independent, it does not matter; all sides found something objectionable about him and the things he says and does. We need to pray for him to be the best president for all the people anyone ever could be, but our eyes and ears and minds must be focused on the actions he takes, the people he appoints, and the programs he seeks to initiate.

The future of this country depends on such vigilance. American-style democracy depends on it. Our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren depend on it.

Abram could have said Lot was no longer his problem, but he did not. Family is family.

We, all of us, are Americans; we are family. We are sorely divided, and it will only get worse unless we find a way to live together.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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