By Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky | Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, Louis Stein Director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, Director of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, JTS
posted on November 7, 1997 / 7 Heshvan 5758
I was honored when Chancellor Schorsch asked me to fill in for him and write a d'var torah on Parashat Lech Lecha, because for this one week each year he and I areLandsmann. The word, in German or Yiddish, denotes compatriots, fellow countrymen. My own family ancestry traces back to Byelorussia, my grandparents hailing from Minsk and Pinsk. The Chancellor comes, as his readers surely know, from Germany. But each of us share a patrimony in this week's Torah reading, for Parashat Lech Lecha was the bar mitzvah portion each of us chanted in our respective congregations all those many years ago.
The Torah reading itself focuses on just what it means to be Landsmann. It sketches the ties of place and family. These two anchors hold Abraham and his nephew Lot fast to one another. But as with all families, the ties that bind are sometimes restrictive and at other times a lifeline. And, as is often the case in the Promised Land, ties of place often create as much trouble as they do a sense of security and rootedness.
The action of the parasha is set in three differing locales. The scene opens with God's call to Abraham while our revered ancestor is yet in his birthplace, his homeland, his father's house, Kharan. While he goes from there to Canaan, the land God promises him, famine quickly drives him to Egypt. All this travel takes place in the very first chapter of the Torah reading. And through it all, Abraham faithfully brings his nephew Lot, his late brother's son, along with him. Young Lot has a chance to see the world under the aegis of his Uncle Abraham.
When they finally settle in the land of Canaan, the need for pasturage leads to bickering and forces the family apart. Abraham graciously offers Lot his choice of property and Lot picks the part that looks richest for his flocks. The Torah tells us his chosen portion was as fertile as "the garden of God, like Egypt." This might give us a clue that not all will be well with Lot's choice. Indeed, Lot's lot, as it were, is in Sodom and Gomorrah, even then a nasty neighborhood. It will be a while yet before those towns are destroyed, but this week's parasha has action enough. Certain local chieftains raid the town and take Lot captive. Uncle Abraham rallies his own troops and rescues his nephew.
The Torah reading ends with a curious turn of events. All the action and travel might have led one to expect that Lot would become Abraham's heir. Instead, with the connivance of Sarah, Abraham fathers a son with his Egyptian concubine and the Torah reading's denouement shows us Abraham and his son undergoing the covenantal ritual of circumcision. Abraham's Landsmann, Lot, his blood relative who hails from his home town, does not succeed him as his heir.
We may well wonder what went wrong. I suspect that in the end, Lot disappointed his uncle. When he was given a choice of property, he made a bad decision. Rather than focus on the spiritual potential of his patrimony, Lot looked instead to property values. He chose bad neighbors. In the end, those bad neighbors not only caused him the trouble of a kidnaping, but caused him to watch his house and hold go up in smoke when God rained fire and brimstone onto the town. Uncle Abraham interceded for him when he was taken captive, and again when God sought to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. But Lot's bad choices rent the fabric of their Landsmannschaft; they ceased to be compatriots.
Father Abraham, for all his flaws, consistently chose God over property. His faith led him to inherit the land of promise, to gain wealth and fame. Unlike Lot who ignored his community, Abraham worked to create a community dedicated to God and to one another. Lot and his family disappeared, the Bible dismisses them with a crude story smearing their offspring. And father Abraham, in choosing God, left a legacy that keeps us all his Landsmann to this very day.
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