Healing the Former Believer

Avraham (still called Avram in this section of the Torah) had a nephew by the name of Lot. Lot was the one family member who accompanied Avram on his pilgrimage to follow God's word and go the "Land that I will show you." He stayed with Avram and Sarah (called Sarai at this point) as they fled to Egypt during a famine and returned with them to the Land of Canaan.

So far, so good. A faithful, in-the-fold nephew.

But things turn sour after they return from Egypt laden with new wealth. They have large flocks, lots of servants. Lot's began to act unethically, grazing their animals in other people's fields. This, claimed Avram's people, was theft! And the servants began to fight. It seemed that "This town ain't big enough for the two of us." They had too much wealth and too many livestock to be able to share the same pastures.

Avram senses a crisis, and preempts it. "Let there not be a fight between us, for we are brothers. Separate from me. If you go left, I will go right. If you go right, I will go left." And so it was, Lot goes and settles in the fertile plain of Sodom - which would remain fertile only a short while longer.

This seemingly simple episode provides deep psychological insight into mind of Avram and of Lot. We can see the source of Lot's corruption: wealth. We can see the evidence of it: he moves to Sodom, a city of sin if ever there was one. And we can see Avram's deep concern for his nephew: He does everything to avoid a fight. Let's look at each in turn.

Sodom, say the sages, was a place where everyone said "What's mine is mine, and what's your is yours." On the surface, that seems ok, except that one thing is missing: charity. Sodom is the ultimate selfish society, the gated community to the extreme. A social contract protects the rights of all to keep their wealth, but they must never share that wealth. I protect your riches, so that you will protect mine. Together we keep the outsider out, and live our lives of luxury in the fertile plain.

Lot was corrupted by wealth. It started with him tacitly accepting his servants acts of theft by grazing in other people's fields. It grew more extreme by him moving to, and becoming a leader in, the ultimate sin city of Sodom. In the next section, when the people of Sodom wish to "sodomize" the angels who came to rescue Lot, he offers the wild mob his own daughters instead! How far he had fallen!

But what about Avram? Did he just let this happen? Why did he avoid that fight, if his nephew really needed a talking to? Maybe he could have prevented Lot's descent.

Or maybe not. I believe that Avram knew quite well what was happening to Lot, and he knew that if he did put up a fight, Lot would probably never return. Now Avram was to be the deed holder to the Land, and yet when he separates from Lot, he let's Lot do all the choosing as to where they will go. Lot was quite the junior partner here, yet Avram gave him that choice. Add that to the seemingly odd fear Avram has of ruffling Lot's feathers and we can gain a glimpse into his thinking, and an answer for the tough situations we described above.

You see, Avram understood that Lot's rebellion had nothing to do with God or theology. It had to do with interpersonal relationships. Indeed, almost all cases of people leaving the faith involve an emotional scarring from a person or people involved with religion. In the case of Lot, it was Avram, and Avram knew that.

How was it Avram? I will venture a guess that Lot felt that Avram was holding him back. Perhaps he was at the stage when he needed the freedom to expand, to "Eat, drink and be merry." Perhaps he had developed such greed that he resented any limits put on him. Avram's servants had done just that, and Avram saw that the fight with the servants would quickly spread to the masters.

Thus, Avram did not discuss the grazing, not did he discuss any hot-button topics. No fight. He put full emphasis on his relationship with his nephew, and did the only thing he could to avoid the fatal poison of an interpersonal break. Yes, without any opposition, he sent Lot on his way. But was he abandoning Lot to destruction?

Not at all. He was making sure that Lot never lost his phone number. He was making sure that some bond, invisible and stretched, but still there, existed. When the time would come for Lot to realize what he had done, he should never feel embarassed, or worse, resentful, towards Avram. Avram, in Lot's mind, was religion, was the representative of God. Sooner or later, as long as that relationship was intact, Lot could return.

So to all parents, spiritual leaders, teachers and influencers, there is a clear message. It is not as much what you teach, as how you teach and care. It is not as much when you discipline as it is how you discipline. If someone has made a choice to leave religion, no amount of screaming will help. The opposite, it will probably hurt. Telling your son or daughter that your Shabbat table is always open to them will keep the potential for return alive. You are the representative of God, of Judaism or whatever spiritual heritage you have. Therefore, you must balance teaching and guiding with love and caring.

Great People Make Mistakes

I believe there are two important lessons here. First of all, truth must be central to all of our communications. The fact that Jacob showed favoritism to Joseph, going so far as to make a special coat for him, was a reflection of Jacob making his truth clear for all to see. If that was how he felt, then that must be how he presents his feelings.

The rabbis are displeased with this, and urge every parent to never show favoritism to one child over another. The great commentary of the Or Hachaim shows how Jacob's clear communication of his special relationship with Joseph prevented another communication: that of the brothers themselves.

The Rabbi explains how, had the brothers felt free to talk things out with Joseph, even to complain to him, they might of gotten past their feelings of resentment. When we get things off our chest, we can move forward. But once their father was clearly on Joseph's side, "they could not speak peace with him." The brothers' complaint would be against their father, and that far they were not willing to go. Hence the communication was broken, and the brotherly relationship was about to be as well.

The Talmud tells how some of the prophets didn't want to use words of praise that Moses had written in the Torah, because they had seen the destruction of the Temple and the exile. Later, The Rabbis of the Great Assembly reinstituted those words of praise. Why, then, asks the Talmud, did the prophets not utter them? "Because they knew that God is truthful, they did not deceive Him."

In other words, they were so committed to truthful communication, that they even limited their praise of God!

Parents are often guilty of inaccurate communication. When a child misbehaves, a parent will often threaten some form of punishment. To encourage good behavior, a parent may offer a bribe. What does the child learn? Not that the behavior is either good or bad, but that their self-interest in the moment requires a change in their behavior.

Threats of punishment or promises of reward, while effective in the moment, are not truthful communication. Yes, I think every parent in the world has used and sometimes needs to use these techniques, but they are not ideal. Truthful communication would be to have the child understand why the desired behavior is correct, on its own merits.

Dr. Robert Cialdini tells of an experiment where children were told to avoid playing with a certain toy either because, "something bad will happen," or without any reason being given. In both cases, most of the children refrain from playing with that toy. When given the same choice of toys a few weeks later, without any warning this time, the children who were originally told to avoid the toy with no explanation were much more likely to continue avoiding that toy. The ones who had been told that playing with the toy would bring a bad consequence, however, overwhelmingly chose that toy the second time around.

The difference being, the first one involved a consequence, and the children refrain from playing with the toy because of self-interest. When no consequence was threatened, the children understood that there was something inherently wrong or bad about the toy, and continued to avoid it even weeks later.

Thus, as parents, when making behavior requests, it is crucial to emphasize the truthful reason for the good behavior, and not some external consequence.

Another aspect of Jacob's truthfulness comes in the ways he made decisions. After all, it's difficult to call Jacob a man of truth when he told one of the clearest lies in the book of Genesis, "I am your son Esav."

But truth does not require perfection, nor does it prevent mistakes. What it does provide is authenticity. We have lots of inauthentic ways of making decisions. People are influenced by what other people do or say, and often delegate their thinking to whatever the crowd is thinking. Most of the time this is okay, but sometimes, especially when it comes to values in modern society, it is dangerous.

I believe that this is the greatness of Jacob. He never looked for the easy way out. He struggled, he doubted, he took two steps forward and one step back, but he never delegated his thinking to anyone else. He sought the truth in every situation, and made his best call.

Again, Hillel's famous saying is brought to mind: "if I am not for myself, who will be for me?" We must make our own decisions, based on our own and best understanding. Then we are authentic, then we have embraced truth. It is the pursuit of truth, not perfection, that made Jacob and his people the force that will change the world.