“Possessions” Parashat Lech Lecha 5783
I am usually hesitant about writing about current events. What is important today is often forgotten tomorrow. As the old Hebrew adage states, “Tomorrow they will be wrapping fish in it”. That said, when current events can shine light upon a difficult spot in the Torah, I am willing to make an exception.
The Portion of Lech Lecha tells of our forefather, Avraham, who introduced monotheism to the world. Avraham and his nephew, Lot, squabble about property rights and Lot moves away from Avraham and establishes his residence in Sodom, an ancient version of Las Vegas. Sodom-dwellers are described by the Torah as [Bereishit 13:13] “exceedingly wicked sinners against G-d”. Shortly after Lot moves to Sodom, the Middle East undergoes political upheaval. An axis of four kings, led by Kedorla’omer, King of Eilam, has been subjugating an alliance of five kings, including the King of Sodom. After paying tribute to the Four-King Axis for twelve years, the Five-King Alliance revolts. Alas, the Alliance is no match for the Axis. The Axis routes the Alliance and their political leadership flees for their lives, leaving their cities unprotected. Axis troops enter Sodom and pillage it [Bereishit 14:11-12]: “[The invaders] seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions, and departed. They also took Lot, and his possessions, the son of Avram’s brother, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom.” These verses contain a number of difficulties:
- Why do the invading troops depart Sodom twice – once after taking the Sodom’s wealth and again after capturing Lot?
- Why is Lot described here as being Avraham’s nephew? This is old information.
- Why does the description of Lot as Avraham’s nephew appear only after the words “and his possessions”?
A fugitive manages to escapes the battlefield and he runs to [Bereishit 14:13] “tell” Avraham. What precisely he tells Avraham is unclear. Avraham, meanwhile, has built an alliance of his own, with Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Hearing that his nephew has been captured, Avraham goes to war and in short order soundly defeats the Axis [Bereishit 14:16]: “He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his nephew Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people.” Here are a few more difficulties we can add to our list:
- If Avraham went into battle to free his nephew, why does he waste time freeing everyone’s “possessions”?
- If Avraham’s primary mission was to free Lot, why is Lot’s release not mentioned first in the list of Avraham’s military accomplishments? The Torah writes “He also (v’gam) freed Lot”, as if this were a secondary mission.
Rabbi Asher Wasserteil, who lived in Israel in the previous century, asks each of these questions and answers none of them. Perhaps we in the twenty-first century can use our experience to see things that Rabbi Wasserteil could not. The war between Russia and the Ukraine has been going on since February. Not many outside of Moscow would deny that the Russians are the aggressors. Ostensibly provoked by the Ukraine seeking admission into NATO, Russia invaded the Ukraine, captured vast swaths of territory and annexed Donetsk to go along with its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia has indiscriminately bombed civilians, killing hundreds, if not thousands, and creating a humanitarian crisis.
Israel’s response to Russian the aggression has been muted. Her contribution to the war effort has been minimal. In the initial days of the war, Israel set up a field hospital on the border and began absorbing Ukrainian refugees. Indeed, Israel has absorbed more refugees than any other country that does not share a border with the Ukraine. Recently, Israel has transferred to the Ukraine early warning systems, the same systems that trigger a “Colour Red” alert when Gazan rockets are fired into Israel. Yet Ukrainian government officials assert that Israel should be doing more. The Ukraine has repeatedly insisted that Israel sell her the Iron Dome missile defence system to defend their cities against high volume rocket fire. Israel has repeatedly refused this request. While Israel has never explained why it refuses to sell Iron Dome to the Ukraine, one obvious reason is that Israel actually shares a land border with Russia. Russia has been ensconced in Southern Syria since 2015. At the same time, Iran and her proxy, Hezbollah, have been using Syria as a forward staging ground to transfer advanced weaponry into Lebanon. According to the foreign press, Israel has been regularly bombing targets in Syria to prevent this from happening, requiring deconfliction with local Russian assets, such as antiaircraft system, radars, and jammers. Without tight cooperation with Russia, Lebanon could acquire weapons that would pose an existential threat to Israel. Last week, Zeev Elkin, the Israeli Minister of Housing and Construction, suggested another reason. Around 150,000 Jews still remain in Russia. Elkin suggests that Israel is concerned that Russian Jews might be used as a bargaining chip. As Israel has become the de facto representative and guardian of world Jewry, she must be very careful with any behaviour that could be perceived as overtly anti-Russian.
Now we return to Lot. When the Axis enters Sodom, they are there for the sole purpose of pillaging the town. As they leave town, they notice that Lot lives there. Avraham is a well-known figure and finding his nephew is fortuitous. Lot can be used as a bargaining chip to dissuade Avraham from supporting the Alliance. When the fugitive escapes from Sodom, he runs to Avraham, the only person with the power to wrest his town from the clutches of the Axis. The fugitive does not mention Lot, but when Avraham hears that Sodom has been overrun, he knows that his nephew will be discovered and taken captive. The fact that Lot had argued bitterly with his uncle and had run away to Sodom is irrelevant. Lot is his nephew. Avraham heads into battle for one reason: to free his nephew. If Avraham would have had real-time intelligence, night-vision goggles and a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, he could have plucked Lot from wherever he was being held hostage and as far as Avraham would have been concerned, his mission would have been accomplished and the war would have been over. Unfortunately, assets of this kind were hard to come by 3500 years ago and so Avraham had to do things the old fashioned way. He had to bang down the door and fight his way in. Once he has the Axis on the run, they begin to jettison their valuables to move more quickly. The big prize is Lot. Everything else is just “possessions”. But they are no match for Avraham. Avraham catches up with them, freeing Lot along with all of the other captives, and answering all of the questions we asked above.
Three and a half thousand years later, little has changed. Avraham has been replaced by the State of Israel and Lot by World Jewry. Israel is the home of all of the Jewish People, those who live within her borders and those who do not. Israel will do whatever is necessary to keep all of her citizens safe, whether or not it is politically expedient.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.
 There were other monotheists before Avraham but they kept their beliefs to themselves. Avraham was the first person to openly espouse his belief in one G-d, even at great danger to his life.
 At this point in history, Avraham was still called “Avram”.
 The JPS translation found in Sefaria translates the verse as “They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, and his possessions”. While this is a more smooth translation, this is not what is written in the Torah.
 It is strange that nearly one year into the war, it still does not have a name. I think people are waiting to see whether we should call it “World War III”.
 Around 20,500 Jews have moved to Israel since the outbreak of hostilities. Another 20,000 are expected by the end of the year.
 Our explanation is based to a certain extent on the commentaries of the Seforno, the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, and the Malbim. But mostly it is based on realpolitik.