Let’s pretend for a moment that your average college campus is Sodom. I know the comparison might be a bit of a stretch since Sodom’s infamy was based on its greed, parsimony and exclusion of the other, whereas our universities are soaking in a deluge of moral relativism and universalism. But let’s just pretend. In this analogy our fearless, if somewhat sheltered and naïve Jewish day school graduates would be none other than Lot.
(In case your knowledge of minor biblical characters is failing you, Lot is Abraham’s nephew, who traveled with him from his homeland to the Land of Canaan. He faithfully followed his master to Egypt and kept his secret there. Lot followed Abraham back to Canaan some time later and seems to be Abraham’s most faithful disciple until – until the day Abraham told Lot that there was a problem. In last week’s Torah reading we saw how Abraham and Lot separated in order to avoid escalating tensions between their shepherds. Lot famously moves to the nefarious Sodom and starts a new life there.)
This week I had a chance to spend two fascinating days at a conference focused on how to prepare our students for life on campus in a world that is distinctly anti-Zionist and increasingly anti-Semitic. So I’m thinking a lot about this and I’m more convinced that the analogy holds.
I want to be clear on this – I’m not saying that our students who are going to mainstream universities are “bad” because I don’t think that Lot is “bad.” Lot is one of the most interesting personalities in the Torah in my opinion. Nearly all of the people we meet in the Torah fit neatly into either the category of bad guy or good guy. Lot lives in ambiguity. He followed Abraham dutifully, until he didn’t. He lived in a wicked place, but seems to have stayed a faithful disciple. He was righteous enough to be saved from Sodom’s fate by the angels. He goes so far as to risk his life to provide for guests just as he had learned by his teacher. And yet in an effort to protect those strangers from the mob he offers his own daughters in their stead. He is saved miraculously but he falls to the ignominy of fathering children from his own daughters.
So he’s complicated. Yet I think this complexity makes him such a relevant personality. I hate to break it to you, but most people are complex. Human beings rarely (occasionally, but rarely) fit neatly into “bad guy” or “good guy” categories. So if Lot is a good comparison to our talmidim (students) and the universities are Sodom, what can we learn from Lot to support our kids? How can we make sure that they succeed in a way where Lot, despite all the things he did correctly, seems ultimately to have failed? Or put another way, is there something that Avraham could have done better to prepare Lot for the “real world”?
It seems tempting to say that Avraham should never have sent Lot away. Through our 21st century eyes we might be inclined to think that Avraham was wrong for suggesting that the only way to resolve the conflict between their shepherds was to separate; they should have kept the family together and found a way to work things out. It’s tempting, but I’m not sure that it’s true. At least, I’m not sure it’s consistent with our traditional approach to the text which seems to reward Avraham for ridding his home environment of a sinner and sees avarice as a driver in Lot’s choices. So let’s keep working.
As the angels arrive in Sodom the text tells us that they encounter Lot and he urges them to stay over in his home. This act of kindness is so similar to what we’ve seen Avraham do just a chapter before. Also, the text tells us how Lot prepares a meal just like Avraham did. Even aspects of what is served at the meal are the same. So that makes me wonder – was Lot perhaps too close a disciple? Was he trying so hard to echo his master’s way that he didn’t find his own, unique way to serve and contribute? Would that have mattered?
Let me suggest that it did matter. We know that Abraham bargained with Hashem and ultimately asked that the city be spared if there were 10 righteous people. Rabbi David Fohrman at Alephbeta.com makes the point that a close reading of the text yields that Lot and his family could actually have totaled 10 people. (Lot, Mrs. Lot, the two unmarried daughters, those we know about. The text also tells us about “sons, daughters, and sons-in-law”, since those words appear in the plural we have the right to assume that there were at least 2 of each category. That would yield 10 members of Lot’s family.) The problem is that when given the chance to leave the city they did not believe Lot that destruction was imminent. He was able to bring his wife and two unmarried daughters with him, but that’s it. So why not? Why wasn’t Lot able to influence and inspire those around him?
I’m suggesting that perhaps Lot was too good at trying to emulate Abraham. Perhaps Lot tried so hard to recreate what he saw that he didn’t figure out how HE was supposed to serve. That type of service might be enough to keep Lot strong, but it won’t be enough to bring others along. If all of Lot’s service and faith is simply a reflection of Abraham’s, if Lot hasn’t found a path that energizes him, then others will read this as shallow and robotic. Ultimately that contributes to the destruction of Sodom and to Lot’s loneliness and failure with his daughters.
I wonder about another part of the Lot story. We see that in order to escape from Sodom eventually Lot and his daughters flee to the mountains (Mrs. Lot, having recently been turned into a pillar of sodium chloride, was not there.) Alone in the mountains, thinking that the world had been destroyed in a deluge of fire and brimstone, these daughters take it upon themselves to begin the re-population of the world with the only male left, their dad. There is a lot to say about this episode but what’s always bothered me is why did it have to happen? Why didn’t Lot go back home to Abraham? The reason he had left was because of some argument between his shepherds and Abraham’s but now as a city dweller he seems to have divested himself of his flocks, so that’s not a problem. He’s a penniless refugee who has just barely escaped destruction. Why not go back home? Why did this have to happen at all?
On this point our tradition puts the blame on Lot. He had some logic that animated this decision and Rashi mentions that, but it seems unsatisfying. We can suggest lots of ideas for why Lot was too ashamed or too angry to return to Abraham after all these years, and we might not ever really know why. But what we can know is that the text never has Lot and Abraham reconcile. As educators, and as parents, I think this point is perhaps the most poignant. Even though our kids go away if we can help them feel connected to us, feel like they can always come home, perhaps we can avoid the worst failures.
So from Lot’s story this year two lessons; it’s not enough to simply have service that is a reflection, we have to help our students ignite their own flame, and we have to work hard while we still have them in school to make sure they know that they can always come back. I admit it’s unlikely to solve the BDS issue on the international scale, but it just might be enough to help our kids make it through.