Stories have utilized sidekicks since storytelling itself began. We can all name our favorites: Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza; Harry Potter’s Ron Weasley; or even Batman’s Robin, the Boy Wonder. What is the role of a sidekick? Why, narratively, do they even exist? Some critics explain that sidekicks exist so the audience can, by contrast, better understand a story’s protagonist — in fact, sometimes the hero even has to rescue the sidekick from a threatening situation so that we better appreciate the hero and his or her character and effort.
What, then, is the Torah of sidekicks? This story of Avraham introduces one of the most famous sidekicks in Tanakh: his nephew, Lot. The Torah is not too sympathetic towards Lot, largely because he didn’t behave in a way that garners much sympathy. At the start of their journey, we read that Lot accompanied Avram on his journey to Canaan. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin in his wonderful Oznayim LaTorah points out that the verb and preposition used to describe this accompaniment are the words vayelech ito, rather than the words vayelech imo. Both translate imperfectly as “he went with him,” but imo implies a full commitment. The word ito, which is less powerful, implies that Lot went with Avram with less enthusiasm: Lot went along not because he was committed to Avram’s mission of spreading God’s message, but because it served his own interests.
And just what were those interests? The Oznayim LaTorah points out that in the story of the turf war between the Lot’s shepherds and Avraham’s shepherds, we read of the many ohalim, the tents, of Lot; when the Torah tells of Avraham (who may well have been wealthier than his nephew), we only ever read of his one, singular ohel. Lot was interested in accruing capital, while his uncle was interested in creating a home that was a center of chesed.
An age-old Shabbaton program asks participants to identify their mentors and role models. The goal of this session is to point out that some movie stars and sports figures may not have the character traits that the kids really wanted to emulate if they gave the issue some thought. But the story of Avram’s sidekick Lot reminds us that even if one picks the greatest mentors in the world, if our own motives are skewed, we may not learn the right lessons.
Coach Ted Lasso serves as a mentor to practically all the characters on his eponymous show. Some, like Leslie Higgins or Sam Obisanya, allow Ted to mentor them for the right reasons. Others (no spoilers) seem to follow Ted only to feed their own self-propelled agendas. While we all — correctly — want our kids to choose the right role models; what we cannot forget is that we also need to remind our kids to do so for the right reasons.
And sometimes the sidekick shows us what’s right about the hero. In this week’s Torah reading of Vayera, after Lot was saved from death as his adopted home of Sodom was destroyed, he was told to flee to the mountains — ha-hara himalet — where he will be safe. Lot refused (let’s be clear: he rejected the plan to save his own life), preferring instead to go to the city of Tzoar. Rabbi David Kimchi, the Radak, explains that the name Tzoar means “young.” The Talmud tells us that Tzoar was only fifty-one years old at this point and was not as corrupt as the fifty-two year-old city of Sodom. The mountains were too far away, writes Rabbi Asher Wassertheil in his Birkat Asher, and Lot was afraid he wouldn’t make it.
Later in the parasha, though, Lot’s much older uncle Avraham was also asked to go to a mountain — to sacrifice his beloved son Yitzchak — and did so without hesitation. Two characters, one request. The sidekick refuses, despite the chance that it will save his life, while the hero accepts, even though doing so may cause the death of his son. Quite a contrast in characters — and in character.
Why did Lot need a city? It appealed, possibly, to his lesser nature and his insecurity. Dr. Leon Kass in his marvelous The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis offers the theory that cities are “breeding grounds for injustice.” Lot wanted a space where he could “forget about human vulnerability and man’s dependence on powers not under human control.” Lot could fly under the radar in such a place (like he did when he lived in Sodom). Lot couldn’t handle being out in the open like Avraham, where he would be on his own, one-on-one with God. Avraham, by contrast, appreciated the relative solitude of the wilderness, a setting which allowed him to connect to and dialogue with his Creator. (Later, when Lot did flee to the wilderness, he vividly proves that he cannot handle such a setting.)
In his Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport writes of Abraham Lincoln, who in the summers of 1862-1864 escaped from the crowded and noisy White House and sought solitude in order to work, write and think in a place called the Soldiers’ Home in Petworth, in what was then farm country north of the center of Washington. Newport argues that Lincoln’s solitude helped him reflect and allowed him to draft the documents that brought us out of the Civil War. Newport writes of the danger of what he calls “solitude deprivation,” which is “a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.”
Lot wanted to be in a city because it was full of distractions. I worry sometimes that stopping to reflect has become a habit that we adults are forgetting and that our children are not learning in the first place, as they grow up in a world of constant potential self-oriented digital distraction. Thanks to the ubiquity of social media feeds, binge-watching or even Candy Crush, we are not as frequently alone with our thoughts as we once were — and our kids even less so.
Are we comfortable being alone, Avraham-like, with God? Or do we seek the distractions and anonymity of Lot? What behaviors do we encourage in our kids (and what do we model for them) in this arena of our lives?
Let’s strive to be like the hero, not the sidekick.