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.

Escaping the Past

The Torah tells us that Sarah was 127 years old when she died. Well, it doesn't exactly tell us that. It says, "And the lives of Sarah will be 100 years, and 20 years, and seven years." What a strange formulation! Our sages seize upon the seemingly unnecessary "ands" to expound a truth about Sarah. When she was 100, she had the beauty of a 20-year-old. When she was 20, she was as sinless as a seven-year-old. (Some versions have it that she was as sinless at 100 as she was at 20, and as beautiful at 20 as she was at seven.) We will come back to this.

The biblical commentator Or Hachaim picks up on the beginning of the phrase, "the lives of Sarah." He explains that Sarah had different phases of her life. Each phase was like a different lifetime. Her first hundred years were quite difficult! For example, until she was 90 years old, she had no child. This deprived her of joy and satisfaction. And even though she gave birth at 90, she knew no peace because of her concern about Ishmael. Abraham's other son was a bad influence on Isaac, and according to some commentaries, posed a mortal threat to him.

Only when Sarah insisted that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away did she begin to feel fully alive. When she made this request of Abraham, Abraham was reluctant. God came to him in a dream and told him to listen to Sarah, for Isaac was to be his true progeny. The commentaries point out that God was telling Abraham that Sarah's prophecy was on a higher level than his.

I find that interesting, because 10 years earlier, she seems to have a crisis in faith. When the angel informs her that she will give birth, she laughs and says, "after I became worn shall I rediscover my youth, and with my elderly husband?" The angel rebukes her to Abraham saying, "Is there anything that God cannot do?" If Sarah was a superior prophet, why was it so difficult for her to believe that she could have a child?

I believe that the Or Hachaim might say that Sarah became the superior prophet when she was 100. Prophecy requires joy and hope. Until Sarah was 100, she didn't feel those things strongly enough. And, perhaps it was the awareness of what she needed to do to protect Isaac that gave her that joy and hope. By finally freeing herself from this burden and requiring Abraham remove the threat of Ishmael, she discovered the power of prophecy.

Perhaps there is a hint to the Or Hachaim's explanation in the aforementioned commentary about Sarah being, at 100, as beautiful as at 20, etc.. She lived until 127. This explanation only takes us up to her 100th year. Perhaps, the last 27 years of her life were actually a new life.

Human psychology contains powerful forces that defy logic. One of those forces is the power of consistency. We hate to change our patterns. Once we have committed to something, we have a deep need to justify that commitment by consistently sticking to it, even if the commitment is illogical and harmful. A friend of mine once related that his parents, who were not observant, felt that they could never change their lifestyle. They told him that, "Even though we see that a Torah life is a good life, we cannot bring ourselves to make that change. To do so would be to admit that our entire previous life was in error."

In other words, even though they knew a better path was available, they refused to take it in order to retain consistency. The person who stays in an abusive relationship does so because of consistency. Appearing to be inconsistent, wishy-washy, unstable, scares us more than our known and established patterns, no matter how harmful they may be.

The Torah forbids us to cause distress to the convert by reminding them of who they were. Even if we intend to praise them, to contrast whom they used to be with whom they have become, it is forbidden. Why? Sarah teaches us. That was a previous life, perhaps even a different person. The person I am talking to now is not them. How does someone feel when being blamed for the misdeeds of an entirely different individual? That's how the convert feels when being told about his past misdeeds, even if the intent is to praise them.

Ecclesiastes is the book where King Solomon explores every possible way to achieve happiness in this world. Riches, wine, women, song are all given their chance. The book concludes with the exhortation, "At the end, everything is heard. Fear the Lord, observe His commandments, because this is the totality of man." A teacher at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Zebulun Charlop, gave a beautiful comment on this verse. Even if a person has wasted their time on riches, wine, women and song, those events need not define him. If his ending is full of fear of the Lord and observance of the commandments, "everything is heard." That becomes their totality. Whatever they did up to that point was simply process, not essence. The womanizer of the past is now a different person.

Sarah's age, the way it is presented, teaches us a very powerful lesson for life. We are not to be stuck in destructive patterns. We have the ability to say that that life belongs to another, and now I am a changed person in a new life. Those previous years and misdeeds were simply part of the birthing process for who I am now. It took Sarah 100 years to give birth to herself, in a sense.

And this applies equally to others! Someone who we disliked many years ago, who mistreated us, is quite capable of becoming a new person. The Torah commands us to never bear a grudge, because a grudge is based on a falsehood. The falsehood is that people cannot change. They can. Just as we must be open to our own ability to change, and identify destructive consistency when it hits, we must be open to new relationships with those who have caused us tension in a previous life. It's not always easy, but it enriches us tremendously.

How Abraham Could Change the World

One of the most puzzling stories involves Abraham's journey to Egypt with Sarah. They were traveling there in search of food, as a famine was raging in the land of Canaan. Abraham, conscious of Sarah's beauty, is concerned that the Egyptians might kill him in order to take Sarah for one of their own men. He urges her to, "Please say that you are my sister, so that I will benefit for you, and my life will be spared for your sake."

That, in and of itself, is difficult to comprehend. Was Abraham OK with abandoning Sarah to some Egyptian man? What is even more difficult to comprehend is Rashi's commentary on this verse. Rashi quotes the interpretation of the sages who say that when Abraham said "that I may benefit for you," he meant that the Egyptians would give him gifts. Gifts! Is that what Abraham wants? For this he is willing to abandon his wife to her fate? Impossible!

Some sages explain that Abraham told Sarah to tell whichever Egyptian threatened her that Abraham was her brother, but she was married to another man. She didn't know where he was, and she and her brother had come to Egypt to search for him. Thus, the Egyptians know she's a married woman, and, hopefully, will not take her. Well, it didn't work. And it does not explain Rashi's statement about Abraham wanting gifts.

I believe that this action of Abraham's is key to understanding his greatness. I believe that Abraham knew exactly what was going to happen, and he had a good reason for wanting it to happen. He knew that Sarah would be saved, and he knew that Pharaoh would reward him with great wealth. This fit into his overall plan for life.

Think about it. Abraham, until this point, was a nobody. He had just arrived in the land of Canaan, unknown and unrooted. And yet, his soul thirsted to spread the word about the One God. The problem was, nobody would listen to him. There are people in every train station claiming to be the Messiah. And even if Abraham had become a celebrity in his homeland (for having survived a fiery furnace -- according to a rabbinical legend), nobody knew him in Canaan. This was before instantaneous world communication was possible. He had no chance of being a YouTube phenomenon.

What gives a person influence? Wealth, and political connections. Sarah, by being taken to Pharaoh's palace, provided Abraham with both. Pharaoh compensated him with great wealth, and with the prestige of having a personal connection. Abraham can now boast that the ruler of Egypt is a supporter and an acquaintance. When Abraham returns to the land of Canaan, he is already a celebrity. People will listen to him, and that is exactly what he needs in order to spread his message.

His reputation will grow even further when he becomes a world player on the military stage. His defeat of the five kings who had kidnapped his nephew, Lot, made all of the rulers of Canaan eager to win his favor.

Abraham and Noah were, in a sense, direct opposite. I believe that Noah sought to preserve the world's childlike innocence. He himself sought to remain a child, as evidenced by his getting drunk and taking off his clothes in his tent shortly after the flood. Abraham, on the other hand, was the quintessential father. In fact, God gives him the name Abraham, "For I have made you the father of many nations."

There is nothing more important to a father than the welfare and future of his children. Abraham felt a deep responsibility for all of God's children, and saw his role as an assistant father. The name God gave him reflects his self chosen role in life. That explains everything he did throughout his career.

And that explains what he says to Sarah as they approach Egypt. "That I may benefit on your account," means that I may gain wealth and influence. "And my life will be spared for your sake," can also be translated as: "And my soul shall live because of you." In other words, my soul's purpose will be fulfilled and I shall live the life I was intended to because of you and your actions in dealing with the Egyptians.

Noah was a righteous man. Some sages, however, claim that had he lived in Abraham's time, he would not have been considered anything special. I agree, but don't see that as criticism. Noah wanted to be living in a pure world, the world of innocence and childhood. If he saw a leader like Abraham, fulfilling the role of civilization's father, they would happily live in the shadows. Abraham's righteousness was in dealing with even the most cynical aspects of the world, and turning them towards God and spirituality. It is spirituality that is the source of eternal youth. Both men thirsted for it, but pursued it in different ways.

It is Abraham's approach, however, that has withstood the test of time. We cannot run away from evil, but we can strive to enlighten every dark corner of the world. By doing that, we are faithful to Abraham's purpose and fulfill the deepest needs of our spirituality. That's how we can change the world.

Jewish Ownership of Israel

Abraham was granted ownership over the whole Land of Canaan, soon to be the Land of Israel, by God Himself. Thus, he had ownership over all the properties he could have needed. So when he needed a burial plot for his dear wife, Sarah, he just needed to ask.

And so he asked Efron, the Hittite, for the Cave of Machpela which was at the edge of his property. Efron and those with him insisted that Abraham can use any plot he wishes, but Abraham insists that Efron "Give it to me" and he will pay full price. In other words, Abraham wants to pay for a gift. He does not say "Sell it to me". That seems strange. Why ask for a gift, and then offer to pay for it? Why not just buy it outright, or accept the gift outright?

A further question about this section. This is the very first land acquisition of Abraham in the Land of Canaan. It is to be used as a burial plot. Why did Abraham not purchase any land previously, for more life-affirming purposes? Why start with a cemetery?

I believe this section is teaching the Jewish People how to relate to all the hatred coming our way from many corners in the world as it relates to our Land. The Palestinian Authority routinely denies any Jewish historical link to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. They deny that any Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount, despite all the Biblical history and archeological evidence. And around the world are many, way too many, voices questioning the right of the Jewish People to a state in their Land.

Abraham teaches us to relate on two levels, for two different audiences. For those who simply don't know the facts, and would hold different opinions if they did, Abraham insisted on a completely above doubt acquisition of the Cave of Machpela. It should be a gift, so that the Hittites who give it do so with all their heart, and not simply as a matter of economic expediency. When Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, that sale was never properly internalized by Esau. He was bitter when Jacob took the blessing of Isaac that went with the birthright. After all, felt Esau, I only sold it to Jacob because I was hungry. I didn't really mean it. Abraham wanted to make sure that Efron and the Hittites really meant it.

Secondly, he wanted to pay full price to remove the possibility that Efron might later change his mind. If it would be only a gift, Efron would still feel the land was somewhat his, and he could retract his gift in the future. Abraham wanted to make sure that did not happen, so he paid the price.

Thus, the first approach is to incessantly combat the lies with evidence. Show the world that Jerusalem already had a Jewish majority more than a century ago. Tell how Jews have lived in this land uninterrupted since Biblical times. Prove our roots here through archeology, historical sources and Biblical sources.

Further, show how deceitful the "Palestinians" have been about it. Show how they have no history here as a national entity, and how they are, indeed, an invented people. Refute the lies about how Israel mistreats Arabs and spread the news about how Israel gives more opportunity to the Arabs than they get anywhere else in the Arab world. Tell the world the accurate truth. Someone is listening. Maybe not everyone, but someone.

The second approach is for those whom proof and argument are of no interest. It is the approach of actions, of facts on the ground. How so?

The Jewish faith teaches the principle of the Revival of the Dead at the end of the Messianic Era. In fact, the life we will experience after coming back will be much the richer. Judaism is a forward looking religion, and death is only a precursor to greater life.

The Talmud tells a story of a pagan Queen asking a Sage whether the dead who are revived will be naked or clothed? The sage responds, "clothed." He infers it from the planting of a seed, which is naked. When it grows as a flower, it has beautiful garments (petals, leaves). Thus, the dead who already have some garments will come back with full clothing.

The comparison to the seed is telling. Burial, death, is not an end, but a beginning. Our first round on this earth is to acquire reward for our good deeds, which will return to "clothe" us at the future Era of the Messiah.

Now, not every crop can grow in every type of soil. Corn would fail in the desert. We believe that the Land of Israel is a living, breathing thing, which has a unique spiritual "mineral content". It is uniquely suited for growing Israelites. Abraham "planted" the seed of the long future of his people by burying Sarah. His first purchase was to be viewed as a beginning of an eternal bond.

The Torah prophecies that, during the exile, the land would be "burned, not arable or crop-producing." And so it was for centuries. Read Mark Twain's account of his visit in the 1800s. The Land was desolate.

Until the Jewish People returned. Then, things began to blossom and bloom. Today, Israel is greener than ever. The naturalness of our presence here is visible to all. It's like the lost dog who naturally runs to its owner. You just know.

That's what Abraham taught us to do, to sink roots. To build, to plant, to believe. To respect the sanctity of the Land and live in harmony with it. The more we do that, the more it will naturally bond with us, and all enemies will simply not be able to break that bond. Put facts on the ground, have faith in a glorious future. That is the best way to combat the hatred.