Lot, the nephew of Avraham, is a strange and tragic figure. His uncle was the greatest man of the age, yet Lot was unable to get along with him. We are taught that after Lot's father passed away, Avraham adopted him and took him under his tutelage. The childless Avraham must have had a special place in his heart and home for his orphaned nephew, yet Lot was unable or unwilling to work on this relationship. Even after Lot and Avraham part ways, Avraham remains concerned and leaps into action when Lot gets into trouble and is kidnapped.
The most famous and tragic story of Lot is his part in the destruction of Sodom. Lot escapes, though not unscathed, as his adopted city crumbles behind him. His behavior in Sodom, and the manner in which he takes leave of the city, draw our attention; viewing this episode in its chronological context may afford us insight to its inner meaning.
PASSOVER IN ANTIQUITY
Rabbinic tradition tells us that Yitzchak was born on Pesach,1 which may be borne out by the language used in the verses: When the angels visit Avraham and Sarah with the promise of Yitzchak's birth the following year, they are served "cakes". While we know that cakes are not necessarily kosher for Passover, there is at least a linguistic similarity between the food prepared by Sarah, and the food prescribed for Passover – both are called ugot (cakes).
And Abraham hurried to the tent to Sarah, and said, 'Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes (ugot).' (Genesis 18:6)
And they baked unleavened cakes (ugot matzot) of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not remain, neither had they prepared for themselves any provision. (Exodus 12:39)
Interestingly, when Lot is visited in Sodom, we find that he serves the guests actual Maztah:
And he pressed upon them greatly; and they turned in to him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and bakedmatzot, and they ate. (Genesis 19:3)
If Lot was serving Matzah, and Avraham was serving ugot, it must have been Passover. There is only one problem with this theory: it sounds absurd. How can Avraham (and Lot!) be observing Passover long before the Jews were enslaved – and certainly before they left Egypt?
We may explain Avraham and Sarah's behavior in one of two ways. On one hand, we can say that, as spiritually sensitive people, they kept the Torah even prior to its being given.2 On the other hand one could make the argument that Avraham had a special affinity for Passover. God had told Avraham that his children would be enslaved and eventually liberated, and Avraham celebrated this event, or at least the promise itself.3 This, then, is what lies behind the Midrashic identification of Avraham's ugot with a Passover feast. Avraham was celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, the realization of God's promise to him, an event which he anticipated with great joy and celebration.
Lot's practice would be more difficult to explain. We could say that as a follower of Avraham he simply mimicked Avraham's lofty deeds. Let us return to the text:
And there came two angels to Sodom at evening; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom; and Lot seeing them rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face to the ground. And he said, 'Behold now, my lords, turn in, I beseech you, to your servant's house, and remain all night, and wash your feet, and you shall rise up early, and go on your way.' And they said, 'No; we will stay in the street all night'. And he pressed upon them greatly; and they turned in to him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and baked Matzot, and they ate. (Genesis 19:3)
Lot's behavior requires analysis: First of all, he sits at the gate of the city. This is reminiscent of Avraham sitting in the opening of his tent. As Avraham waits for guests to serve, so does Lot. The main difference is that Avraham lives alone while Lot lives in a most inhospitable city. A second connotation to the gate of the city is a common reference in Chumash to the gates of a city as the place of judgment, or the locale of the Judges.4 In fact, later on in the narrative Lot is attacked by his neighbors for placing himself as judge upon them.
And they said again,
'This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he wants to be a judge; now will we deal worse with you than with them.' (Genesis 19:9)
Here we have the first clue to the tragedy of Lot. Rather than be second to Avraham, Lot strikes out on his own. He craves "top billing" as a leader in Sodom, and not just leader but judge. While it is true that to be a judge is an honorable position, judge of Sodom does seem to be an unfortunate career choice, at best. It must not have been easy to be constantly and totally over-shadowed by his illustrious uncle; Lot decided to make it on his own, and while he tries to be like his uncle, he always seems to fall short. With guests entering his (empty?) courtroom, Lot has an opportunity to be like Avraham. Here is a chance to extend hospitality and kindness. There is only one problem: the people of Sodom will not tolerate this type of behavior, and Lot knows it. Time is of the essence. We hear it in his words; he welcomes his guests, and he discusses their departure before they even agree to stay.
And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in, I beseech you, to your servant's house, and remain all night, and wash your feet, and you shall rise up early, and go on your way.
Lot wants to do the right thing; he wishes to perform chesed. The text indicates that these visitors were angelic.5 He knows what he has to do, but he sounds scared. He wants them to leave before they step in the door. This is why he makes them Matzah – it is the fastest type of bread! Unleavened bread – doesn't even have time to rise. Based on the narrative, that would seem to be the sad reason that Lot gives his guests Matzah: Not because he is celebrating the Seder, but because he is scared and he wants them out as quickly as possible.6
On the other hand, Lot did rise to the occasion. He convinced them to stay; he made a feast. Soon enough, there was knocking on the door.
But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, both old and young, all the people from every quarter. And they called to Lot, and said to him, 'Where are the men who came in to you this night? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.' (Genesis 19:4,5)
Maybe taking them home was not the best idea; not in Sodom, not even for the judge. Make no mistake: the mob outside was not the 'chesed committee' welcoming guests. This was a group of Sodomites, looking for a "good time". They wanted to get to "know" them better (keep in mind that this is the Bible, making it superfluous to say that they wanted to know them in the Biblical sense). Lot was now in trouble. His celestial guests were about to be abused in his front yard. He probably wondered what Avraham would do in a situation like this.
Lot acts heroically yet tragically; he offers the men a better deal:
And Lot went out the door to them, and closed the door after him, and said, I beg you, my brothers, do not do so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me, I beg you, bring them out to you, and do to them as is good in your eyes; only to these men do nothing; seeing that they have come under the shadow of my roof.' (Genesis 19:6-8)
Lot's interpretation of chesed took a remarkable wrong turn: Rather than endanger his guests he offers his virginal daughters to the mob. "Do what you wish" he tells them, "just don't harm my guests". Something seems terribly wrong. This is not what chesed is supposed to be about. Lot's behavior is morally outrageous. Then again, Lot was never more than a pretender7 to Avraham's greatness. He paled in comparison to Avraham, which is why he came to Sodom in the first place. Now, the judge of Sodom makes a most injudicious decision that sets the stage for an exodus.
ECHOES OF THE EXODUS
While at face value this entire episode has nothing to do with leaving Egypt, textual analysis reveals some surprising lines of comparison.
In retrospect, the feast that takes place the night before Lot's departure from Sodom does remind us of the first Pesach Seder which took place in Egypt. However, in Egypt the Jewish People knew they would be leaving in the morning. In Sodom, at the time of the feast, Lot has no idea of what is in store.
Second, Lot's confrontation with the people of Sodom took place at the door of his home:
And Lot went out the door to them, and closed the door after him ...And they said, 'Stand back.' And they said again, 'This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he wants to be a judge; now will we deal worse with you than with them. And they pressed hard upon the man, Lot, and came near to break the door. But the men put forth their hand, and pulled Lot into the house to them, and closed the door. (Genesis 19:9-11)
In Egypt the Israelites were instructed to mark their doorposts with blood.
And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper doorpost of the houses, in which they shall eat it.(Exodus 12:7)
A third point of which we should take note: When the mob continued their assault they were blinded, echoing the plague of darkness that would afflict the Egyptians.
And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great; so that they wearied themselves to find the door.
There are other elements of the narrative that remind us of the Exodus, although they seem somehow inverted: In Sodom, the perpetrators were young and old, while in Egypt young and old were the victims, the liberated:
...surrounded the house, both old and young, all the people from every quarter. [ibid., 4]
And Moshe said, 'We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go; for we must hold a feast for the Lord. (Exodus 10:9)
The angels lead Lot out of Sodom, while the Haggadah stresses that God Himself led the people out, not an angel nor messenger.
Leaving Egypt, negotiations take place between Paroh and Moshe, with Moshe pleading for the Israelites to be allowed to leave. In Sodom, the Angels try to convince Lot to leave. In the end they must literally grab him, "for he tarried"; in Egypt the opposite takes place:
But he lingered, and the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters.(Genesis 19: 16)
The term used here is "lingered" (vayitmahma), the same term used to explain the origins of Matzah: "for they left so quickly they had no time to linger."(Exodus 12:39)8
By now we clearly discern a connection between these two events, but what is the nature or meaning of the connection?
Lot was not a great man. He may not have been wicked9 but greatness eluded him. Why was he saved from Sodom? Was he a "tzaddik"? Or was it that he was related to Avraham? (Rashi, for one, says that Lot was saved only on Avraham's merit. [Genesis 19:17]) His only action recorded in the Torah is in his behavior toward his guests, and even this chesed was performed in a perverse fashion. Why would his leaving Sodom serve as a prototype for the great Exodus from Egypt?
Perhaps in his failures, in his imperfections as a man, we have the perfect prototype for the eventual salvation. Our Sages tell us that the Children of Israel in Egypt had slipped through the 49 levels of impurity. Egypt was a corrupt land – as was Sodom, and the Israelites had become acculturated. Why were they saved? Perhaps simply because they were related to Avraham, and God had promised that they would to be saved - even though they may not have merited liberation.
The one thing the Children of Israel had was confidence that they would be saved. This confidence gave them the courage to perform the Pascal ceremony in Egypt, to slaughter a symbol of the Egyptian gods, to smear the blood on the doorpost, to sit and eat their Matzah and know that they would leave in the morning. What gave them this confidence? Perhaps the answer lies in the Matzah. When they were ordered to eat the Matzah they knew they were really leaving. After all, in their collective memory they knew that Matzah symbolized the imperfect act of chesed performed by Lot immediately before he was saved. And, they reasoned, if Lot was saved from Sodom despite his peccadilloes, they would be saved as well. God's plan is beyond human comprehension; in both cases, human judgment would find the subjects undeserving of God's salvation, but God Himself thought otherwise.
The exodus of Lot, then, is the first exodus and serves as the prototype for the future salvation in Egypt, just as the Exodus from Egypt is the prototype for the future, final Messianic salvation.
The aftermath of Lot's liberation is particularly sordid and tragic:
And Lot went up out of Zoar, and lived in the mountain, and his two daughters with him; for he feared to live in Zoar; and he lived in a cave, he and his two daughters. And the firstborn said to the younger, 'Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.' And they made their father drink wine that night; and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. And it came to pass on the next day, that the firstborn said to the younger, 'Behold, I lay last night with my father; let us make him drink wine this night also; and you go in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.' And they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father. And the firstborn bore a son, and called his name Moav; the same is the father of the Moavites to this day. And the younger, she also bore a son, and called his name Benammi; the same is the father of the Ammonites to this day.
The connection of this episode to the exodus from Sodom is not immediately clear. Are we being given insight into the lasting moral effects of life in a corrupt society upon the younger generation? Lot is anything but an impressive character: He drinks himself into a stupor and commits incest (though unaware, which is not a glowing testimonial, either!). Are the children solely to blame? Perhaps Lot himself was not fully aware of the repercussions his choice of neighborhood would have on his family, and eventually on the history of nations. Here, then, is a completely different type of plague of the firstborn. Yet the rabbis have an incredible insight into this episode.
Arise, take thy wife and thy two daughters that are found. R. Tobiah ben R. Isaac said: Two 'finds' [would spring from them], Ruth the Moabitess and Naamah the Amonitess. R. Isaac commented: I have found David, My servant (Psalms 89:21): where did I find him? In Sodom. (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 50:11)
One eventual result of this tryst is the birth of David: King David, the chosen,progenitor of the Messiah. Long before the enslavement in Egypt, God prepared the building blocks for the Messianic redemption.10
The primary trait of Avraham is chesed. Lot is an imposter; his chesed is misguided. He commits incest with his daughters, which, remarkably, is described in the Torah as chesed (see Leviticus 20:17, which speaks of sibling incest, and Rashi's comments).
Many years later the Moavites, the descendants of Lot and his older daughter, send their daughters down to Israel's camp and try and corrupt the morals of Avraham's descendents rather that welcoming the Israelites from their travels in the desert – as Avraham would have done11 (Numbers 25). When God condemns Moav, it is specifically for their lack of chesed that they are chastised:
An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord forever. Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. (Deuteronomy 23:4,5)
The Israelites are elsewhere instructed to avoid conflict with the descendants of Lot, apparently to keep the deal made all those years ago with Lot.
And the Lord said to me, Distress not the Moavites, neither contend with them in battle; for I will not give you of their land for a possession; because I have given Ar to the sons of Lot for a possession. (Deuteronomy 2:9)
Because Moav has its roots in Avraham's tent they are expected, even many generations later, to adhere to a higher moral standard. They are expected to perform chesed, and when they do not they are excluded from joining the Jewish people. Only when Moavites internalize the true teaching of chesed can they once again join the community of Israel.12 This occurs only generations later, when a young woman from Moav did know how to perform chesed: Instead of 'getting on with her life' after her husband passed away, she cared for her mother in-law. The woman's name was Ruth the Moabite. She is the great-grandmother of David. David's kingdom, then, begins in Sodom – or, more precisely, in the exodus from Sodom.
We see then that the first exodus from Sodom, the Exodus from Egypt and the final salvation spearheaded by a descendant of David are all remarkably related. The Matzah served by Lot is the key to deciphering the inner message of the story. When we eat Matzah on Pesach we say that it is lechem oni – often translated as poor man's bread. The Talmud makes a second suggestion for the etymology of the word "oni" from the word to answer or respond.
The fact that we read it 'oni' [is explained] as Samuel's [dictum]. For Samuel said: Bread of 'oni' [means] bread over which many words are recited ['onin']. (Pesachim 36a)
Apparently Matzah is more multifaceted than we ever would have imagined. It represents a Mitzvah performed quickly and imperfectly. How amazing that this meal could have so inspired the oppressed slaves in Egypt, and that as a result of this hasty meal the Messiah will one day arrive.
- Rosh Hashanah 11a. (return to text)
- Yoma 28b, Kiddushun 82a. There are sources that see the reverse - the Jews receive the Mitzvah because Sarah prepared ugot. See Midrash Rabbah - Shmot 15:12: " 'And Matzot' (ibid.) - in honor of Sarah who prepared cakes for the angels..."(return to text)
- Bereishit 15:13,14: "And he said to Avram, 'Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years. And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth.'" (return to text)
- For example see Devarim 22:24, Bereishit 34:20. This example is of particular interest, since the Rambam rules that the reason the brothers were justified in killing the city of Shechem was that they did not keep one of the Noachide laws, namely to maintain a just society. Apparently Rambam holds all the inhabitants of the city responsible for the outrage because they failed to mete out justice to Shechem. (return to text)
- When the visitors came to Avraham they were described as people; when they came to Lot they are described as Angels. Perhaps Avraham treated all guests as if they were angels, but Lot needed some extra motivation, so God sent him angels. (return to text)
- There is an earlier Midrashic reference to Matzah: When Lot was kidnapped someone came to inform Avram of Lot's situation. According to the Midrash the person was Og, who found Avram preparing Matzah because it was the 14th of Nisan. Significantly, the text records that the battle to free Lot is waged at midnight.(return to text)
- The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba section 42) notes that Lot looked like Avraham. When the five kings battled with the four kings and Lot was taken captive, they were actually looking for Avraham, and took Lot by mistake. (return to text)
- Other connections include Vayshkef in verse 28, and the same word used in Shmot 14:24 (two of the three appearances of the word in the Torah). The description of the crying out and the suffering has similarities, verse 13, and Shmot 2:23-25. There are some more connections both thematic and linguistic, the reader is invited to carefully read the two sections. (return to text)
- Actually Rashi 13:14 calls him wicked - but that was when he left Avraham and he didn't keep his shepherds in line, perhaps his behavior in trying to save the angelswould allow him to lose the appellation of "wicked." (return to text)
- For a similar teaching see Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 85:1: "Before the last who shall enslave [Israel] was born, the first redeemer was born." (return to text)
- The numerical value of Moav is 49 - indicating the 49th level of depravity, the level to which the Jewish people sank in Egypt. (return to text)
- The justification of Ruth converting was that only the males of Moav were excluded by the Torah's ban, not the women. See Yevamot 76b. Also see Midrash Rabbah - Vayikra 14:1. (return to text)