Sometimes, you can’t change the world, and in order to make sure the world doesn’t change you, difficult and often painful decisions are necessary. I still remember joining the Israeli army, full of motivation and inspired to make a difference, only to discover that the reality of army life often had its own set of rules.
One of the most damaging norms in army life is how easy it is, even for a relatively honest person, to become a thief. People justify it by differentiating between outright theft and mild pilfering, whether grabbing extra cookies from the kitchen, or swiping an extra pair of pants before inspection from a different tent because in the middle of the night someone swiped yours. Theft is theft, and it is a struggle to stay ‘clean’ all the way through training.
Still, there are certain rules and codes you learn quickly, that most soldiers instinctively understand. No normal soldier steals weapons and you don’t ever take personal belongings from anyone and especially from the guys in your own unit.
It took me a few weeks of detective work and entrapment to catch the thief within my unit. I brought him up on charges and demanded his removal from our battalion, eventually settling for his transfer out of our company. Not only was he upset with me, but some of the good guys in the unit who were his buddies, tried convincing me that it wasn’t a big deal, and that ejecting him from the unit would seriously damage morale.
It took me a lot longer to struggle with whether I was right or had just made a terrible error in judgment. After all, he was a good guy who you could count on to cover your back, and pilfering was almost an inevitable part of army life. Was it fair to put a blotch on his service record forever?
How does one find the appropriate balance between “live and let live,” sweating the small stuff on the one hand, and refusing to compromise with evil and wrong-doing on the other?
If you are standing in the supermarket and someone cuts the line in front (or even in back) of you, should you demand he leave the line, and call for store personnel to remove him from the store?
This week’s parsha of Lech Lecha provides with the classic case in point. Apparently, Avraham and his nephew Lot had both acquired so much property there wasn’t enough room for the both of them. Can you imagine? In Israel today there are over ten million people. And sitting in America with a map spread out on the table, one might imagine there is just no more room in this tiny country.
But come to Israel and spend a day in the Galil, the Negev, or the Judean Mountains, and believe me, there is plenty of room. Endless vistas stretching as far as the eye can see of room. So how could there not have been enough room for two families 4,000 years ago?
While the Torah is somewhat vague about the exact nature of the conflict between the shepherds, Rashi, quoting the Midrash, makes it very clear: Lot’s shepherds were stealing, and Avram’s shepherds were taking the moral high ground.
More puzzling than the conflict however, is Avram’s inexplicable reaction to it:
“And Avram said to Lot: ‘Let there not be a quarrel between you and I and between my shepherds and your shepherds. Behold all the land is before you; please separate (part) from me; if you go left I will go right, and if you go right, I will go left.” (12:8-9)
“Separate from me”? This is Avram’s great solution to conflict? Bear in mind that this is not an argument with someone you never met who is in you parking space; this is Avram’s own nephew!
In fact, the verse does not actually say Avram and Lot were arguing; it says the argument was between the shepherds. So why does Avram feel Lot should leave? How depressing to think that even the paradigm of loving-kindness in this world can reach the point of no return in his relationship with his own nephew. Is this the blueprint for Jewish ethics? When the going gets a little tough, just go?!
Equally disturbing is Lot’s response, especially as one might have expected better from someone who comes of age in the tents of Abraham. He actually left and relocated to Sodom, the most wicked and sinful place on earth! How could someone who grew up in what must have been the most ethical place on earth end up in Sodom?
Perhaps Avram understands he cannot decide where Lot should be, Lot has to make that decision on his own. This does not, incidentally, mean Avram ever stops loving Lot and caring for him. After all, when hearing that Lot has been taken captive, Avram goes to war against five kings to save him. But they can no longer live together.
Interestingly, if one looks closely at the story in the Biblical commentaries, it may well be that the straw that broke the camel’s back was not that the shepherds of Lot were stealing; it was that they didn’t see anything wrong with it. And if Lot’s shepherds think wrong is right, it can only mean their employer Lot is fine with that.
When someone you love does something terrible, it is important to be able to deal with it, forgive them, and move on. But if they don’t really see anything wrong with what they are doing, then we have to absolutely refuse to live with such norms.
Perhaps, what Abraham was teaching the world is that there is a line we cannot cross. While we dream of creating a world where all peoples live together in peace; our challenge is to make sure we are happy with that peaceful world we create.
If you would like to subscribe to Rabbi Freedman’s weekly parsha insights, join the list at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author is Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, and a Company Commander in the IDF reserves. Rabbi Freedman lives in Efrat with his wife Doreet and their four children. His weekly Internet ‘Parsha Bytes’ can be found at www.orayta.org