Thursday, November 09, 2006

Charity and Justice

Parashat Vayera offers us two examples of hospitality to strangers. One is provided by Avraham and the other by his nephew, Lot. A comparison and contrast of their "styles" highlights what I believe is a fundamental aspect of Avraham's personality and philosophy. Let us examine the key features of the incidents described in our Parasha in order to identify the similarities and differences between them:

1. Initial Reaction

And Avraham lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, there were three men standing before him; and he saw, and ran to greet them from the entrance of his tent, and he bowed down to the ground.


And two of the angels came to Sedom in the evening, and Loy was sitting at the gate of Sedom; and Lot saw, and rose to greet them, and he bowed down with his face to the ground.

Whereas Avraham, upon sighting the travellers, runs to greet them, Lot waits until they are right in front of him to respond to their presence.

2. What is Offered


If I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass by your servant. May water be brought that you may wash your feet, and rest underneath the tree. Then I shall take some bread and you may feast to the satisfaction of your heart and then leave, for you have indeed passed by your servant...


And he said, "Behold now, my masters, turn now to the home of your servant, and spend the night; then wash your feet and go on your way."

Avraham offers a whole range of services to his guests. Lot only promises lodging for the night.

3. Response of Guests


And they said, "Do as you have spoken."


And they said , "No, we shall sleep in the street."

The guests gladly accept Avraham's offer, but hesitate to agree to Lot's.

4. What is Prepared and By Whom


And Avraham rushed to the tent, to Sarah, and he said "Hurry, knead three seah of fine flour and bake cakes." And Avraham ran to the cattle, and he took a young, fine calf and gave it to the youth, and he hurried to prepare it. And he took butter and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed it before them; and he stood over them, under the tree, and they ate.


And he made for them a meal, and he baked matsot, and they ate.

Avraham engages his entire family in the mitsvah of feeding the guests. He dotes over them during their meal. Lot, by contrast, acts alone, and eats together with his visitors.

5. Relationship with Children


For I know him [Avraham], such that he will command his children and household after him - to keep the way of Hashem, performing charity and justice.


Behold, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them what is good in your eyes. Only, do not do harm to these men, for they have come underneath the protection of my roof.

And Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, the husbands of his daughters, and he said, "Get up and leave this place, for Hashem is destroying the city"; but he was viewed as a clown in the eyes of his sons-in-law.

While Avraham educates and inspires his descendants, Lot treats his daughters like objects and is not taken seriously by his family.

6. Concern with Justice


And Avraham approached and said, "Will you indeed destroy the righteous together with the wicked...Far be it from You - Will the Judge of the entire Earth not do justice?"


And Lot went out to them through the doorway, and he closed the door behind him. And he said, "Please, my brothers, do not do evil. Behold, I have two daughters..."

And they said, "Step aside!" And they said, "This one came to dwell, and now he presumes to judge us - now we will harm him more than them!"

Avraham intervenes on behalf of people with whom he has no relationship, and seeks to clarify his understanding of God's justice. Lot's intervention extends only to the guests in his home, and involves a "perversion" of priorities.

. Justification of Kindness/Justice


Ki-Al-Ken-Avartem Al Avdechem: For you have passed by your servant.


Ki Al Ken Ba-oo B'tsel Korati: For they have come under the protection of my roof

Avraham's concern for the men is related to their situation of need, the fact that they are passersby. Lot's concern, on the other hand, is related to the "sanctity" of his domain.

Clearly, the parallels identified here are not accidental. Why does the Torah seek to compare Avraham and Lot in this manner? What does it teach us about their respective personalities, worldviews, and destinies?

Avraham's motivation to pursue kindness and justice was rooted in his unique philosophy. He recognized that every human being is a creature of God who deserves to receive sustenance and support. Avraham's exuberance in serving guests stemmed from his general commitment to imitating the benevolent and equitable ways of the Creator.

Avraham runs from his tent to bring guests into his home and escorts them out when they are ready to leave. This demonstrates that his care for them is not tied to the fact that they are inside his 'domain'. Before the arrival of the travellers, from the moment he spots them on the horizon, Avraham is already preoccupied with their welfare. During the meal, Avraham does not rest - he stands over his visitors like a waiter so as to be vigilant in attending to their needs. Even after they exit his home, their value in his eyes is not diminished. He insists on accompanying them outside.

In a similar vein, Avraham, though he has no personal ties to Sedom, feels compelled to question the Divine judgment pronounced against it. He struggles to fathom the basis for God's decision to destroy the city, and is not satisfied until he perceives the principles of justice that underlie it. Avraham's intervention here is not a reflection of any identification he has with the people of Sedom. Rather, it emerges from a sincere desire to understand and emulate the wisdom of the Almighty.

Because Avraham's concern for others was based upon a set of ideas, it was inherently teachable. It should come as no surprise, then, that his entire family - students imbued with the spirit of his "Torah" - participates eagerly in serving the visitors together with him.

Indeed, we can also appreciate why Avraham and Sarah are informed of the upcoming birth of Yitschaq at the same time that they are told of the imminent destruction of Sedom. As Hashem states, Avraham will instruct his descendants in the ways of Hashem, i.e., the pursuit of kindness and justice. Avraham's "star pupil" and successor is destined to be his son Yitschaq, who will need to receive a thorough education from his father if he is to carry on the tradition faithfully.

In order to fulfill his obligation to teach Yitschaq properly, Avraham has to develop and refine his own understanding of kindness and justice as completely as possible. The incident of Sedom was an opportunity for him to deepen his knowledge of the paths of God and to prepare himself to share this knowledge with his son. This is why God introduces the topic of Sedom and engages Avraham in dialogue at this time - to connect Avraham's grasp of God's wisdom with his moral responsibility to communicate it to Yitschaq. It is this tradition of wisdom, conveyed from Avraham to Yitschaq, from Yitschaq to Yaaqov, and from Yaaqov to his children, that will ultimately form the spiritual foundation of the Nation of Israel.

Lot, by contrast, has a fundamentally different orientation to kindness and justice. He has an attachment to these ideals, but for personal rather than philosophical reasons. He desires to be charitable and just only because this satisfies his inner need to feel good about himself.

For this reason, Lot only greets his guests after they approach him. At that point, he will feel guilty if he fails to invite them in. Furthermore, when they resist his overtures, he pressures them to enter - in fact, the same verb "and he was insistent" is used to describe the Sodomites who attempt to break down his door only a few verses later. The pressure that Lot applies to the visitors is a sign that his interest in charity is more self-serving than altruistic.

The content of what Lot offers is also noteworthy. He commits to the minimum amount of hospitality necessary to alleviate his sense of obligation. And his family is nowhere to be found - he prepares the modest repast himself. During the meal, rather than doting over the guests, Lot partakes of the meal together with them.

All of these features of his behavior indicate that Lot's attraction to kindness was a personal idiosyncracy. The enjoyment he took in providing for his guests was not based upon a philosophy of life that he could have imparted to his family. Therefore, he could not possibly "mobilize" his relatives around the performance of this mitsvah like his uncle Avraham did.

This trait of Lot manifests itself in his attitude toward justice as well. Unlike Avraham, Lot is remarkably disinterested in the fate of Sedom. When his guests are threatened by an aggressive mob, his defense of them is not principled or profound. He doesn't appeal to objective standards of justice or morality; rather, in his mind, his visitors are worthy of protection only because they have "come under the protection of his roof." The Sodomites recognize his hypocrisy and offer a sarcastic rejoinder, "this one came to dwell here, and now presumes to judge us?" Ultimately, Lot's willingness to use his own daughters as pawns is the most egregious symptom of his distorted sense of propriety.

Lot's unsophisticated approach to justice is no secret to his family. When he tries to share the news about Sedom's impending punishment with his sons-in-law, they consider his warning laughable. They realize that Lot, regardless of his attempts to imitate the ways of Avraham, is no authority on matters of Divine judgment. To them he remains little more than an old-fashioned, eccentric man who is out of step with Sodomite culture.

From the comparison and contrast that the Torah delineates here, we gain an insight into what was truly unique about Avraham and his household. Under his leadership, they sincerely dedicated themselves to the realization of the divine ideals of charity and justice. Their motivation to do so was the function of deep understanding and was bereft of any selfish interest. Avraham taught his family to appreciate the intrinsic worth of every human being and to act accordingly. Thus, he became the progenitor of a great nation that would receive "righteous statutes and judgments" and serve as a model for all of mankind.

Lot, despite his good intentions, ultimately exhibits a self-centered attitude toward other people. He pursues kindness and justice only in order to satisfy the demands of his guilty conscience. As such, he fails to transmit these quintessential Abrahamic values to his family. In the end, Lot becomes the ancestor of two nations who inherit his outlook and who, as a result, are destined to clash miserably with the Children of Israel.