When God calls to Avram and tells him to, “…go, leave the place of your birth; go, leave your father’s house; go to the land that I will show you…” Avram does not leave alone. He goes with Sarai, his household and, of particular interest, with his nephew, Lot. As they travel down to Egypt, the Torah tells us that vayelech ito Lot (12:4) – and Lot went with him. Later, when the Torah relates that Lot followed Avram back to Canaan from Egypt, we read once again that Lot was with him. Only this time, it is not written ito rather than imo. Yes, they both mean “with him” but as we know, no word, no letter, in the Torah is without meaning. That the Torah uses these two different terms to connote “with him” suggests meanings and insights that demand our attention.
We know that God’s call to Avram, to leave his home, was a great test of faith. That Lot joins with him suggests that he too had faith, if not in God certainly in Avram. When famine drives Avram from Canaan to Egypt, again Lot is with him. And when Avram returns to Canaan, Lot is with him.
Malbim explains that ito, like et grammatically in Hebrew, is dependent on another word. Therefore, what the Torah is telling us in using ito here is that when Lot was originally with Avram he knew and recognized that he was dependent on Avram. He was an et. There was no question in his mind that Avram was the “main character” in their travels.
According to Malbim that changed when they returned from Egypt and Lot was laden with wealth and resources, his perspective grew as bloated as his resources. He no longer saw himself as dependent on Avram. He was a rich man and like too many rich men he equated material wealth with worth. He no longer saw himself as ito, dependent or subordinate in relation to Avram. Now, he saw himself as being imo, with Avram but no longer as a subordinate. Now he was an equal.
He mistakenly saw himself as a main character is God’s narrative. As Malbim explains, this change in perspective foretells Lot’s eventual behavior in Sodom.
HaKesav VeHaKabbalah understands the change from ito to imo differently. In this reading, during the beginning of their relationship when he was ito, Lot failed to absorb all the positive things he could from Avram. Ito suggests a lesser connection. However, as he rose in stature so did his relationship with and to Avram. He was imo – with him. He has learned to absorb Avram’s goodness and to learn from him.
The Netziv also sees the change in terminology as a marker of Lot’s growth. The longer Lot was in Avraham’s “environment,” the more he became “Avram-like.” According to the Netziv, Lot was just like any other person – influenced by his environment and the company he kept.
The question we must ask is, Which of these two understandings ring true to us? Who was the real Lot? We know he was complex. Even his favoring Sodom is not as simple as some would make it seem.
On the surface, he desires Sodom and all that goes with it. On the other hand, the Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer teaches that when Avraham was praying to save Sodom – that the decree for Sodom’s destruction be annulled – he was praying for Lot and his family. He viewed them as worthy and righteous, and hoped that because of their merit Sodom would be saved. Clearly, Avram apparently continued to hold Lot in high esteem even after he’d left him.
Even his inclination toward Sodom is not simple. The posuk (13:12) tells us, vayeheal ad Sodom, “he camped up to Sodom.” These words suggest that Lot did not start out living in Sodom proper. Indeed, he was cautious and rightfully fearful of being influenced by all that Sodom was and represented.
He understood how easy it is for anyone to be influenced by his environment.
It was only later, when fighting broke out among the kings that he actually “moved in” to the city proper. It was then that things grew difficult for him, when he was fully in an environment that would overwhelm him.
R’ Eliyahu Dessler explains that Lot had the best of intentions when moving near and eventually into Sodom. He recognized the dangers of Sodom, but he thought he had the inner strength and conviction to overcome all the sin and negativity that defined that place. He believed he could rely on the strengths he’d gained from Avram; that Avram’s spirit and faith had rubbed off enough that he would be able to withstand the evil and change them rather than be changed.
He believed that the strengths he’d internalized from Avram could overcome the evil of Sodom’s environment. Sadly, he learned a lesson that we must all learn – that we always fall victim to the seviva – to the environment – we find ourselves in. Lot, filled with good intentions, fell victim to the famous adage: Oy l’rasha, oy li’shcheino – “Woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor.”
Good intentions. Good education. Good upbringing. Good family. One can have all these and more but if he finds himself amidst immoral, crass, ignorant and evil people he will grow more crass and evil, not the other way around. Woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor.
We are products of our environment. It cannot help but be so. A flower cannot grow in concrete. Only a weed can survive such harshness.
It was true that Lot had absorbed a great deal from the righteous and faithful Avram but all that he had absorbed was not enough to shield him from the environment of Sodom. When he was with Avram and Sarai, he grew wealthy; he became more faithful. He absorbed goodness and faith. That is, he was profoundly influenced by his environment. Likewise, when he found himself in Sodom’s environment, he reflected the evil of that place and population.
Woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor.
Man is a product of his environment.
If Lot, nephew of Avram, beneficiary of years at this great man’s side, could not withstand the influences of a negative environment, what chance does any of us have? We live in a time when one does not have to travel half-way across a continent to arrive at Sodom. Sodom is all around us. It is television, with its ever-more lurid story lines. It is popular music, with its disrespect for women and blatantly sexual message. It is the Internet, with its trolls, fake stories, pornography and angry – if virtual – mobs. In short, Sodom comes to us! Turn on your television and Sodom’s images enter your living room. Turn on the car radio and the beat and message overcome your commute. Boot up your computer…
Who could even think of allowing a child to use a computer without installing filters and safeguards. To do any less invites Sodom into one’s home.
We send our young men and women to colleges to become scholars and professionals but in doing so, we send them into environments rife with anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment. What are we to do? What do we do to protect ourselves and our children?
Do we retreat into ever more insular worlds? Is that the only way?
That the world is filled with dangers should not come as a surprise to any of us. Caution and thoughtfulness must define our engagement with the world. By the same token, we need not – we must not be afraid. Our best defense against the dangers of an evil environment is to build for ourselves a good environment. As Rambam said in Hilchot Deot (6:1), “The way of man is to be influenced in his character and actions after his friends and companions, and to habituate himself to the customs of the people of his country. Therefore, one must associate with righteous people and to constantly sit among learned people, so that he will learn from their actions. One should distance himself from wicked people, who go in darkness, so that he will not learn from their actions.”
I can only imagine what Rambam, the greatest medieval Jewish mind, might add to his words, were he to witness the darkness surrounding us today. At the very least, I would think that he would teach that if we must approach Sodom, that we remain a distance from it; that we vayeheal ad Sodom.
We cannot avoid the world. We must live in the world, but we can avoid being of the world in the negative way that suggests. We must recognize that we are defined by our environments. We must create and embrace environments of goodness if we are to remain good.