Was Lot Worse Than Esav? Parallels, People(s), and Property

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davey Schoenberg

Who was more antagonistic to our nation, Lot or Esav? We all probably learned in grade school that Esav is obviously the villain, our archnemesis, the literal manifestation of evil. And certainly from the stories in Bereishit, even if we limit ourselves to the text and ignore the numerous midrashim, Esav appears to be the winner of the malevolence match up. The Torah testifies that he planned to kill Yaakov, and we also learn that he “despised” the Abrahamic birthright. In contrast, the only problem between Lot himself and the Abrahamic line is that Lot’s shepherds fought with Avraham’s shepherds. If we add in all the midrashim about how evil Esav was—including one that Esav tried to murder Yaakov by biting his neck—it seems even more clear that Esav’s wickedness trumps Lot’s.

Yet when we look at the laws surrounding their descendants, we get the opposite impression.[1] While Esav’s nation (Edom) can marry into the Jewish people three generations after converting to Judaism (Devarim, 23:8-9), Lot’s descendants [2] can never marry in, even after ten generations (Devarim, 23:4). Additionally, while the Torah forbids the Jewish people from conquering either set of descendants, the language in regard to Esav is much stronger, using the phrase “and you shall guard yourselves very much,” an admonition that is absent when speaking about Lot’s descendants (Devarim 2:4-5, 9, 19). Moreover, there is a special prohibition regarding Esav that the Jews may not even set foot on his descendants’ land, a commandment that is again not applied to Lot (ibid). Finally, the Torah explicitly says we are not to “seek the peace” of Lot’s descendants, but in the very next pasuk says, “Do not despise an Edomite” (Devarim 23:7-8). We see, therefore, that despite our intuition that Esav is worse than Lot, the Torah commands us to treat Lot much more harshly.

To begin understanding this seeming incongruity, we will first take a step back to talk about the word “רכש” (rechush/rachash: property/to amass). According to a Bar Ilan Responsa Project search, the root of this word appears eighteen times in the entire Chumash. Of those, an astonishing sixteen are in reference to Avraham, Lot, Yaakov, or Esav.

Two appearances of the word involve almost identical psukim. When mentioning that Lot’s shepherds fought with Avraham’s shepherds, the Torah states:

וְגַ֨ם־לְל֔וֹט הַֽהֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶת־אַבְרָ֑ם הָיָ֥ה צֹֽאן־וּבָקָ֖ר וְאֹֽהָלִֽים :וְלֹֽא־נָשָׂ֥א אֹתָ֛ם הָאָ֖רֶץ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו כִּֽי־הָיָ֤ה רְכוּשָׁם֙ רָ֔ב וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ לָשֶׁ֥בֶת יַחְדָּֽו:

And also to Lot who travelled with Avraham there were sheep, cattle, tents. And the land could not sustain them to dwell together, because their property was [too] great, and they could not dwell together (13:5-6).

Similarly, when Esav goes away from Yaakov and leaves Israel to go to Har Seir, we read:

וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁ֠יו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֘ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו: כִּֽי־הָיָ֧ה רְכוּשָׁ֛ם רָ֖ב מִשֶּׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו וְלֹ֨א יָֽכְלָ֜ה אֶ֤רֶץ מְגֽוּרֵיהֶם֙ לָשֵׂ֣את אֹתָ֔ם מִפְּנֵ֖י מִקְנֵיהֶֽם:

And Esav took his wives, sons, daughters, and all the people of his house and his cattle and animals and all the acquisitions he had amassed in the land of Canaan, and he went to [another] land from before Jacob his brother. Because their property was [too] great to dwell together, and the land of their sojournings could not sustain them because of their flocks (36:7).[3]

Both Avraham/Lot and Yaakov/Esav, had too much property to be near each other, so they separated. Yet although these psukim are similar, there is a glaring difference between their contexts. In the context of Esav, the previous pasuk refers to his family members as distinct from his possessions: wives, children AND rechush. For Lot, in contrast, people are not mentioned as distinct from the property.

This difference between Lot and the Abrahamic line continues in the rest of Bereishit. When Lot is captured along with Sdom, the Torah notes that the conquerors took “the property of Sdom and Amorah and all their food … and also Lot and his property” (14:11-12). None of their people are mentioned. In contrast, when Avraham saves everyone who was captured, the Torah says he returned “all the property and also Lot his kinsman and his property and also the women and the nation” (14:16). The Torah, when referencing the exact same set of things, mentions “the women and the nation” separately when Avraham is the key actor, but includes them under “property” for Lot.[4]

Similarly, when Avraham leaves Charan, he takes his wife, his nephew, his property, and the “people they had made” (12:5). Again, the people are distinct from the property.

The first time rechush is mentioned directly in regard to Yaakov, when he leaves Lavan, the people are also listed separately (31:17-18). The other time, when the nation goes down to Egypt, not only are the people listed separately, but the Torah then goes into great detail, listing the names of the people who went with him (46:5-26).[5]

Thus, every time the word rechush is mentioned when Avraham, Yaakov, or Esav are the actors, people are treated as distinct from property, but when Lot is acting, people are considered property.[6] Indeed, Lot’s consideration of people, even his own family, as property is evident when the people of Sdom mob his house because of his visitors. Lot says to them, “I have two daughters who have not known a man; I will take them out to you and do with them what is good in your eyes” (19:8). Lot offers up his virgin daughters to be mass raped in order to protect his visitors. Part of the obvious utter revulsion we have towards this is certainly Lot’s casual treatment of his daughters as bargaining chips.

This is exactly the difference between Lot and Esav. Esav treats his own family well: there is a distinction to him between people and property. Lot, however, is a wildcard. No one is safe from him, not even family, because people are just another piece of property to mess with.

We can now answer the question with which we started. Esav can eventually marry into the Jewish people because once we are his family—say, after three generations—we trust him to be good to us. Even if the original Esav was terrible to the Jewish people, we know that if we are family, he will fulfill the basic minimum of treating us well. Esav doesn’t treat people like property. Lot, in contrast, does. Even after ten generations, when we would definitely be family, we cannot be assured that he will be good to the Jewish people because being family with other people means nothing to him: everyone is rechush.

While obviously not ideal, we can accept many negative—even reprehensible—character traits and still be willing to consider someone Jewish. This is not to say we should accept those character traits, but rather that given enough of a baseline, we may welcome someone into the community and then work on improving their actions. Comparing Lot and Esav, however, teaches us that negating the agency of other people must not be tolerated.

Notes:

[1] Admittedly, the only nation we are commanded to wipe out completely is Amalek, a descendant of Esav. Nevertheless, this is only one portion of Esav’s descendants. Esav as a whole is called Edom (Bereishit 36:1), and this is to whom I refer when I say Esav’s descendants.

[2] Moav and Bnei Amon.

[3] In this week’s sedra.

[4] The king of Sdom also separates people from property, saying to Avraham, “Give me people, and the property take for yourself” (14:21). I’d argue he learned this lesson from Avraham, as Rashi commenting on the section says that a miracle occurred to the king of Sdom, causing him to “believe in Avraham” (Rashi Bereishit 14:10, s.v. be’erot be’erot cheimar).

[5] Well, the names of the males plus Dinah. The women are only mentioned as groups. But that’s a whole different discussion.

[6] There is one more time where rechush is mentioned by Avraham, when Hashem promises him that his progeny will eventually leave Egypt “with great property” (15:14). While in this case, people are not mentioned separately, this is for a clear reason: Hashem is promising that the entire nation will leave Egypt, taking their property with them. There are no separate people for them to be taking along.

 

Davey Schoenberg (SBM 2018) grew up in Newton, MA and attended Maimonides School before spending two years in Gush. He is currently a Sophomore at Harvard College concentrating in Mechanical Engineering.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah, Uncategorized

Comments are closed.