Lot's Dilemma by Reb Steve

Here is a brief dvar (or drash or drasha) on last week’s Torah portion, Vayera.  I hope you find it interesting.

“And he delayed, and the people grabbed his hand and the hand of his wife and the hand of his two daughters, because of the pity HaShem felt for him, and they brought him out and deposited him outside the city.”

וַֽיִּתְמַהְמָ֓הּ וַיַּחֲזִ֨קוּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֜ים בְּיָד֣וֹ וּבְיַד־אִשְׁתּ֗וֹ וּבְיַד֙ שְׁתֵּ֣י בְנֹתָ֔יו בְּחֶמְלַ֥ת יְהוָ֖ה עָלָ֑יו וַיֹּצִאֻ֥הוּ וַיַּנִּחֻ֖הוּ מִח֥וּץ לָעִֽיר:

This is how the story of the end of the city of Sodom begins, by Torah telling us that Avraham’s nephew Lot delayed.  The night before, two angels had told Lot the city was to be destroyed, that he should take his whole family and all he has in the city and flee.  But Lot stayed until morning.  Time has run out, and now the angels order Lot to take his wife and the two daughters still living at home and get out. ֽוַֽיִּתְמַהְמָ֓הּ  “And he “delayed”.  In transliteration, VaYitmahmah.

The tale of the destruction of Sodom gives us plenty to question, and the question I keep coming back to this year is, why did Lot hesitate or delay?  This word for delaying is unusual; it occurs just nine times in the entire Hebrew Bible.  The cantillation mark, called shalshelet, which tells us how to sing ֽוַֽיִּתְמַהְמָ֓הּ , is extraordinarily rare, occurring just four times in the Torah.  And each time we find a shalshelet in the Torah we find a character in a crucial moment, struggling with an emotional or ethical dilemma.

So what was Lot’s dilemma?  Many of the medieval commentators tell us Lot tarried because he wanted to save his wealth and property, and the sense seems to be that Lot was greedy and acquisitive.  But another way to look at Lot is that he is the kind of person who sees his world as a world of scarcity.  Such a person might hesitate to give anything up, even in the face of pending destruction.  Seeing scarcity can make it difficult to see the needs of others and easy to focus on individual rights rather than communal responsibilities.  Lot’s uncle, Avraham, of course, represents another type of person, one who sees abundance, welcomes strangers, attracts people by virtue of his virtues, builds community. 

We are at a crucial moment in America, divided and mistrusting.  Let’s take a look around us and ask if America is a place of scarcity or a place of abundance.  If we choose to see the amazing abundance, we can dare to be generous, to build open and creative communities.  We can ask not what my rights are but what all of us need to live full and meaningful lives.  Look and see.  There is plenty to go around.

With blessings for a happy and healthy week,

Reb Steve

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