Parshat Lech Lecha: Avraham and his relationship with Lote

Lote’s decision to accompany Avraham on his journey

Avram went as Hashem had instructed him and Lote went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Charan. Avraham took Sarai, his wife, Lote, his nephew, all the property he had acquired, and the followers he had developed in Charan. They left to travel to the Land of Canaan; and they came to the Land of Canaan. (Beresheit 12:4-5)

The parasha begins with Hashem’s command to Avraham to abandon his homeland and his father’s house and to travel to an unspecified destination. Hashem assures Avraham that he will be rewarded for his submission to His will and his descendants will develop into a great nation. In the first of the above passages, the Chumash tells us that Avraham embraced Hashem’s command and departed as he had been instructed. He was accompanied on his journey by his nephew Lote. The second passage explains that Avraham took with him on his journey his wife, his nephew, his property, and his many followers that he had nurtured during the period his lived in Charan.

In commenting on the first passage, Don Yitzchak Abravanel suggests that Lote made his own independent decision to accompany Avraham on his journey. The passage states: He went with Avraham. In other words, Avraham did not attempt to persuade Lote to abandon Charan and embark on this remarkable journey to an as-of-yet unspecified destination. Lote, on his own accord, decided to accompany his uncle Avraham. If the passage is viewed in isolation, this interpretation does conform to the apparent meaning of the passage. However, when the next passage is considered, Abravanel’s interpretation seems untenable. The very next pasuk tells us that Avraham took Lote with him on his journey. This passage seems to imply that Avraham persuaded his nephew to join him and Lote was not making an independent decision.

Abravanel does not suggest a response to the apparent contradiction. But it would seem that the two passages are describing two discrete steps in the process of Lote’s incorporation into Avraham’s entourage. First, Lote made an independent decision to accompany his uncle. Only after Lote made his own decision to undertake this journey did Avraham reach out to encourage and assist him. The first passage describes the initial stage – Lote’s decision. The second passage describes Avraham’s response – he accepted Lote into his party.

Malbim avoids the apparent contradiction between the passages by suggesting an alternate interpretation of the first pasuk. According to Malbim, the intent of the passage is to distinguish between the motivations of Avraham and Lote in embarking on their journey. Avraham undertook his journey in response to Hashem’s command to leave his land and search for a new home. Lote left to be with his uncle. The pasuk is telling us that he went with Avraham. He was not driven by the imperative of a Divine command; he was motivated by his love for and dependency upon his beloved uncle. The passage does not intend to attribute independence of action to Lote; in fact, it emphasizes his dependency upon his uncle. Therefore, the second passage does not contradict its message. Lote decided that he must remain in the company of his uncle. In response to Lote’s decision, Avraham took Lote with him on his journey.

Each of these interpretations reflects its own understanding of the message communicated by the Chumash. According to Abravanel, the Chumash is telling us that Avraham had intended to leave on his journey without his nephew. Avraham modified his original plan in response to Lote’s insistence that he accompany him. This raises the obvious question: Why would Avraham abandon his nephew and not take him on his journey?

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l has suggested that Avraham’s initial decision to abandon Lote was predicated upon his interpretation of the commandment he had received from Hashem. Hashem’s commandment consisted of two elements:

1. Avraham was instructed to abandon his homeland and his father’s house.
2. Avraham was commanded to embark upon a journey to an unspecified destination.

Rav Soloveitchik explained that the directive to abandon his father’s home required that he leave all but his closest family. He was instructed to begin his life anew and to disassociate from his past. Lote was part of the life and history that he had been commanded to forsake. In order for Avraham to initiate a new beginning for himself, all vestiges of his past and his personal history were to be forsaken. Therefore, Avraham intended to leave Lote behind. However, when Lote insisted on accompanying him, Avraham agreed. Apparently, Avraham assumed that Hashem’s commandment could not require that he abandon a person committed to discarding idolatry and joining him in service to the One G-d.

Malbim attributes a very different message to the passage. The passage is not revealing any new information about Avraham and the instructions he had received. Instead, it provides an insight into Lote’s personality and the limits of his spiritual development. Lote was not leaving on this journey in response to a commitment to Hashem. He was participating because of his devotion to and dependence upon his uncle Avraham. In other words, the Torah is providing background information regarding Lote – a character who will repeatedly play a role in Avraham’s unfolding story.

Lote and Avraham separate from one another

Hashem spoke to Avram after Lote separated from him: Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, to the north, south, east, and west. (Beresheit 13:14)

Avraham’s journey comes to its conclusion when he arrives at the Land of Canaan. Avraham and Lote settle in the land. Each has extensive flocks requiring grazing land. Conflict and strife develop between the Lote’s shepherds and Avraham’s shepherds. Avraham intervenes and suggests to Lote that they separate from one another – each settling in a different area. In order to ensure that Lote receives the suggestion favorably, Avraham allows Lote to choose first the area he will occupy. Lote accepts Avraham’s suggestion. He selects the area of Sodom for his new home and relocates with his flocks to that area.

The Torah tells us that after Lote’s departure, Avraham received a prophecy. Hashem promises to Avraham that his descendents will become numerous and possess the Land of Canaan. The above passage introduces this prophecy. As the pasuk indicates, this prophecy occurred after Avraham separated himself from his nephew Lote. The passage seems to suggest a relationship between this separation and the prophecy.

The Midrash tells us of a dispute between Rav Yudah and Rav Nechemyah concerning the prophecy and its relationship to Avraham’s separation from Lote. Rav Yudah maintains that Hashem was angered by Avraham’s treatment of his nephew. Avraham sent Lote away because of Lote’s improper behavior. Avraham understood that Lote had precipitated the strife that had developed between their respective shepherds. Nonetheless, sending Lote away was not the proper response. Instead, Avraham should have worked to improve Lote’s character. Avraham’s mission was to change the attitudes and behavior of humankind. This responsibility began with his own family members.

Rav Nechemyah maintains that Avraham acted correctly when he sent Lote away. Rav Nechemyah explains that Hashem had assured Avraham that his descendants would take possession of the Land of Canaan. Hashem’s intention was that Avraham would have his own children and their progeny would be the beneficiaries of this promise. Lote’s presence at Avraham’s side and his close association with his uncle suggested that he and his descendents would also share in the legacy. Only after this potential source of confusion was eliminated did Hashem reiterate and expand upon His promise to Avraham. ,

Rav Nechemyah’s position can be better understood through considering another comment of the Midrash. The Midrash explains the specifics of the conflict between the shepherds of Avraham and Lote. According to the passage in the Torah, it seems that the conflict emerged out of their competition for grazing lands. However, the Midrash explains that another issue contributed to their dissention. The shepherds of Avraham were careful not allow their flock to graze upon land that was owned by the residents of Canaan. The shepherds of Lote did not restrict the grazing of their flocks. Avraham’s shepherds criticized Lote’s shepherds for their practices and told them that they were stealing from the owners of the land. Lote’s shepherds responded that Hashem has promised the land to Avraham’s descendents. Avraham had no children. Lote – Avraham’s nephew – was destined to be the beneficiary of this promise. Therefore, they were not stealing; they were merely grazing their flocks on the land destined to be their master’s. Avraham’s shepherds responded that although Lote or his descendants may someday posses the land, now the land is occupied by other nations. Until the promise to Avraham is fulfilled, the rights of the current owners must be acknowledged and respected.

Based upon this Midrash, Rav Nechemyah’s position is better understood. Avraham’s close association with his nephew, Lote, would inevitably lead to conflict and enmity between Avraham’s and Lote’s respective descendants. The association encouraged and nurtured Lote’s or his descendants’ false belief that they were included in the promise to Avraham. Lote saw himself or was seen by others as Avraham’s adopted son. They reasoned that he should surely be included in any legacy passed on to his “father’s” children. As a result, Avraham’s treatment of Lote and the subsequent interpretation of Lote’s relationship with his uncle undermined and conflicted with Hashem’s intention. Hashem never intended to include Lote and his descendents in His promise to Avraham. Instead, Hashem’s intention was that Avraham would have his own children and they would be the sole beneficiaries of His promise to Avraham.

An alternative interpretation of Hashem’s commandment to Avraham to leave his homeland and the house of his father

Rav Nechemyah’s comments suggest an alternative interpretation of Hashem’s commandment to Avraham to forsake his homeland and the house of his father. According to Abravanel, Avraham understood these instructions to include abandonment of Lote. However, Avraham relented when Lote insisted in accompanying him. Apparently Avraham believed that the command he had received from Hashem was intended to sever his attachments to the culture and values of his past. These were influences that had no place in his new life. When Lote insisted in following him and declared his affinity with Avraham’s mission, Avraham assumed that he was not included in the directive. After all, Lote too was abandoning the influences of the past embarking on a new life. However, according to Rav Nechemyah, Avraham’s interpretation of Hashem’s instructions was incomplete. Lote’s presence presented another problem that Avraham failed to identify. His presence at Avraham’s side bred confusion and then dissention. It suggested that Lote too was among Avraham’s children and included in the promise to Avraham that his descendents would inherit the Land of Canaan.

Avraham did not realize that this was an aspect of Hashem’s instruction to leave his father’s house. He did not appreciate that this directive was designed to assure that only Avraham’s own children and their descendents would be identified as his progeny. Therefore, it did not occur to him that the instruction to leave behind his father’s house included Lote. When Lote insisted on accompanying him, Avraham acquiesced. Avraham arrived at his destination – the Land of Canaan. Hashem was prepared to reiterate to Avraham His promise to give this land to his descendents and to expand upon that promise. But the actions and attitudes of Lote’s shepherds interfered. His shepherds regarded the land as Lote’s. They explained that Lote was included in the promise to Avraham that the land would pass to his descendants. This was precisely the confusion that Hashem had intended to prevent by commanding Avraham to completely abandon his father’s house and bring none of its members with him on his journey. Avraham had misinterpreted this command, and as a result, the prophecy repeating Hashem’s promise was delayed until Avraham addressed and resolved this issue by separating himself from Lote.