Educating Against Egypt

Through his experiences with his nephew Lot, Abraham learns valuable parenting skills.

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Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

The birth of Yitzchak [Isaac] is anticipated with prayers, prophecies and Divine promises. Moreover, his birth and upbringing are prefigured by the trials and errors of his father's two earlier son figures--one a nephew and the other a concubine's child.

The patterns and mistaken assumptions that cost Abraham the fidelity of both Yishmael and Lot also served as parenting instructors. The course adjustments in the wake of these disappointments contributed to the excellence of the third attempt. And although there can be no doubting the primacy of transmission through Yitzchak, the Torah's deference to Yishmael and to Lot's descendants suggests that even a failed son of Abraham is esteemed.

A careful reading of a small passage in Lech Lecha may illustrate how a crucial element in faith-training is discovered.

Early in the parshah, Abraham answers the Divine call: "And Avram went as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him (ito)...." When Avram removes to Canaan, Lot is carried along by the very same verb that carries Sarai.

Then comes the famine, which drives the Holy couple down to Egypt, testing their faith in the G-d who had just promised them Canaan. Beside the traumatic encounter with Pharaoh, the Egyptian detour rattles Abraham's security in his mission. The Abarbanel (15th century commentator) notes that despite the vast wealth--accounted in flocks and silver and gold--the nefesh, the proselytes, are missing.

For this reason, the patriarch hastens to his earlier altar and to the work of calling out the name of the True G-d. He returns "lemasaav," which the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, 19th century commentator) understands to refer to his regular missionary circuit.

Then the Torah moves to pick up another thread: the fortunes of Lot. Though Abraham returns safely to his mission and his G-d, the Torah subtly notes that his sojourn in Egypt did have one casualty: Lot.

"Vegam leLot haholech es Avram" (And also to Lot, who went with Abram). A distance has grown between the nephew and his uncle, the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 19th century commentator) notes. All they share in common now is rich holdings of property. The disputes between their shepherds is a projection of their own loss of spiritual kinship, and until Lot has gone his own way the Heavenly voice is absent from Abraham's camp.

The mature Abraham was able to put the blandishments of Egypt's rich, sensuous civilization in perspective. He remained steadfast and unblemished. But the young disciple, his roots yet shallow in the soil of faith, was not so lucky. True, he dutifully returned to Canaan with his uncle (for which the Abarbanel applauds him). Nevertheless, when his eyes scanned the landscape of the Promised Land, it was clear what he was searching for--Egypt! "And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the plain of the Jordan, that it was all well-watered...like a garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt...." The eyes which chose Sodom and Amorrah were no longer the eyes of a son of Abraham.

The lesson of environmental influence was not wasted. Yitzchak was destined to live out his entire life in the Land of Israel as an olah temimah (a whole/unblemished offering). Abraham did not repeat the mistake that had cost him his precious nephew.

There would be other lessons--the inexorable influence of Noach's designations of blessing and curse, the absolute necessity of righteous parenting from both father and mother, the existence of many ways in the service of God beside the way of chesed (kindness).

All these lessons would accrue, through painful experience and absolute devotion, to the eternal credit of the future generations, which twinkled as stars in Abraham's heaven, to us.

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Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt is rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center, Riverdale, N.Y.