The Way of the World is for a Man to Sacrifice Himself

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Tobie Harris

The story of Lot offers interesting parallels to the Avraham-centric stories directly before and after it.

Lot rushes to meet his guests, offers them food and rest, even bakes them matzot just as Avraham did. When the bloodthirsty mob storms his house, he goes a step further by risking his life for the sake of his hospitality.  Lot leaves the safety of his house and pleads with the mob:

.ויצא אליהם לוט הפתחה, והדלת סגר אחריו


.אל נא אחי, תרעו

.הנה נא לי שתי בנות, אשר לא ידעו איש – אוציאה נא אתהן אליכם ועשו להן כטוב בעיניכם

.רק לאנשים האל אל תעשו דבר, כי על כן באו בצל קורתי

Lot went out to them by the doorway and closed the door behind him.

He said:

Please my brothers, do not do evil.

See, I have two virgin daughters – I will bring them out to you and you can do with them as you like. Just don’t do anything to these men, as they have come under my roof.”

The text offers no direct indication whether Lot’s offering his daughters to the mob should be seen as an indication of the extent of his hospitality, or rather as a sign of unthinkable brutality and callousness.

Midrash Tanchuma, on the other hand, takes an unequivocal stance:

,בנוהג שבעולם אדם – מוסר עצמו ליהרג על בנותיו ועל אשתו והורג או נהרג

.וזה – מוסר בנותיו להתעולל בהם

:א”ל הקדוש ברוך הוא

,חייך, לעצמך את משמרן

“.ולבסוף תינוקות של בית רבן משחקין וקורין “ותהרין שתי בנות לוט מאביהן

:אמר רבי נחמן

?מנין שכל מי שהוא להוט אחר בולמוס של עבירה סוף מאכילין אותו מבשרו


The way of the world –  a man sacrifices himself for his daughters and for his wife, to kill or be killed – but this one – he sacrifices his daughters to be tormented. 

God said to him: 

By your life, you save them for yourself, 

and in the end schoolchildren will laugh and read “Lot’s two daughters got pregnant from their father. Rabbi Nachman said: 

From where do we learn that if one has a craving for sin, in the end he is fed his own flesh? 

From Lot.

This midrash not only condemns Lot, but also directly links this heartlessness to the end of his story, suggesting that his own rape by his two daughters is divine retribution for having offered them up for gang rape by the residents of Sodom.

While the idea of attempted rape being punished by actual rape is obviously horrific, Ilan Sandovski ( suggests a causal link between the two stories. He suggests that when Lot’s daughters said “ואיש אין בארץ לבוא עלינו כדרך כל הארץ,” “There is no man to come upon us in the way of all the land,” they did not believe that the entire world had been destroyed. Rather, they realized that they were no longer in a position to be made a decent marriage offer (for someone to take them “in the way of the world”). This left them alone and vulnerable, at the mercy of a father who had already proved that their virginity was an asset he would trade away for his own protection. They needed a way of securing steadier protection, particularly in the long term, while also ridding themselves of their dangerous virginity. They needed this to happen in a way that their father could neither deny nor use to punish them for licentiousness (as Yehudah almost did to Tamar). In their eyes, raping their father and thus upgrading their status from “virgin daughters” to “mothers of his sons”, was their only path to safety.

Immediately after the end of their story, we return to the narrative of Sarah being taken by Avimelech, which suggests another parallel: is the midrash’s scathing criticism of one who does not sacrifice himself to save his daughters or his wife any less applicable to Avraham, who (for a second time) surrenders his wife to ensure his own safety? Isn’t he, too, sacrificing her “to be tormented” rather than insisting on killing or being killed?

If so, the parallel to Lot’s story might suggest that we need to look for Avraham’s punishment, his own metaphorical “being forced to eat his own flesh”. I would suggest that we can find it in the next chapter, when Sarah forces him to send Yishmael away. While this demand is endorsed by God, there is no sign that it would have been commanded had Sarah not seen the need for it.

Avraham’s actions in Gerar made Sarah believe that her position in the household was precarious. (The prior story of her tormenting Hagar also directly follows her being sacrificed to propitiate Pharaoh). She realizes that safety in Avraham’s household is not absolute for a less-favored wife. Sarah, like Lot’s daughters, must shore up her defenses by securing her status as “mother of the [primary] sons”.  In a household where a wife can be traded away for safety, Sarah is right to believe that she must play power games to ensure her and her son’s safety.

But because these parallel stories of sacrificing others are both capped by the Akeidah, the lesson that the parallel is trying to teach is as murky as the lesson of the Akeidah itself (a problem I originally thought I would get around by focusing on the Lot part of the story). One can read the Akeidah as saying that sacrificing others for yourself is wrong, but sacrificing others for God is right. One can read the fact that the sacrifice was called off as saying that sacrificing others is always wrong.

But in whichever reading, I think there is one point that is significant: the Akeidah is the only one of these stories that begins with an affirmation of the value of the person sacrificed. Lot’s daughters are described only as virgins; Sarah isn’t described at all in this story and in the earlier story is described only as “beautiful”. Yitzchak, in contrast, is described as “your son, your only one, whom you love” and the narrative takes time to establish the closeness between him and Avraham. This point might suggest that the greatest evil – the evil that breeds reciprocal selfishness – more than the sacrifice itself, is to take away the humanity of the one being sacrificed, to reduce them to an object whose value lies only in its utility.

Tobie Harris (SBM 2005) currently lives in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem and is working as an attorney for the Israeli Antitrust Authority.


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