A NEPHEW HE NEEDED? – Lech l’cha – Gen. 12-17 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s reading covers some famous subjects. First we will read how famine drives Abram and Sarai (not yet Abraham and Sarah) from their new home in Canaan down to Egypt, where they pass as brother and sister until the king takes the beautiful Sarai into his palace – and plans to take her into his bed – only to discover she is married, whereupon his better nature triumphs and he sends her and Abram out of his country. And at the end of the reading, when his name gets changed to Abraham, comes the Covenant, the Bris, yes, circumcision of all Jewish males, which we seem to be hearing about all the time recently. In between, we will read a dramatic story of a local war between four kings and five kings with a rather surprising finish. Here our father Abraham exhibits some remarkable qualities. That in-between story is worth examining.
At first, the tribal conflicts look petty. One prince, the king of Elam, rules over the neighboring people for 12 years. Then in the 13th year they presumably get tired of paying him tribute and they rebel. So he gathers his henchmen (a dominant one named Kedarlaomer and two other local kings) and goes on the attack, defeating one tribe after another. When they come to a valley called Siddim, they face a pitched battle against no less than five kings – including those from Sodom and Gomorrah (already famous as homes of various kinds of evil, but not to be punished until next week). Four beat five here, because the valley is full of slime pits and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fall into the pits and their cohorts flee to the mountains. So Kedarlaomer and his buddies take spoils – and prisoners – from the defeated cities. Among them, none other than Lot, Abraham’s nephew who was living in Sodom.
What brought Lot to the wicked city? When Abram and Sarai left Egypt, nephew Lot went with them, back to Canaan, where both he and his uncle prospered. They acquired so many flocks that their shepherds fought each other, and Abram told Lot they had to separate. So Lot picked the Jordan valley to settle in, and pitched his tent in Sodom. Now that choice was making him a prisoner of war.
Abram hears that Lot and his family are captured, and he proceeds to take action. He arms a force of 318 men, trails the enemy army north to near Damascus, and attacks them at night. He succeeds in retrieving the goods they seized, and rescues Lot and his all-female family of a wife and two daughters. Returning south, Abram is greeted by the king of Sodom and others who celebrate with wine and bless Abram’s victory. In grateful admiration, the king of Sodom tells Abram: “Give me the people, and you take the goods!” But Abram declines to take any spoils. “I have lifted my hand to G-d Most High, that I will not take anything, from a thread to a shoestring, anything that is yours.”
Before his personality is complete, before he completely proves his devotion to the One G-d he has discovered, before either Ishmael or Isaac is born, our forefather demonstrates that he is ready to fight, and die if necessary, to save a family member. And is Lot such a deserving family member? Didn’t he pick a city full of low-lifes to live in? And next week won’t we read about the destruction of that city and Lot getting rescued again – this time by angels – only to lose his wife to her own curiosity? And then doesn’t he proceed to get drunk and impregnate his daughters? What did Abraham need him for?
Like every human being, Abraham did not get to pick his relatives. What choices he had were choices of action. There he faced challenges that many others don’t have to face. And he set a shining example for us all.