Thursday, November 1, 2012

Distance and Change

This week, through our Torah portion of Vayaira, we spend a considerable amount of time with our Uncle Lot. You remember Lot. He was Avraham's nephew, son of his brother, whom Avraham virtually adopted as his ward when his brother died prematurely. Lot travelled with Avraham from Haran to Canaan. He lived in his illustrious uncle's shadow for many a year. Finally, last week we read, Lot achieved considerable wealth of his own, and he and Avraham decided to part ways. Lot settled in Sodom, the city of wanton corruption.
Even after their parting, Avraham needed to come to his nephew's rescue when he was taken captive in Sodom's defeat at the hands of the four kings.

This week again we meet Lot. Now he is living in Sodom, indeed a judge there and man of note. Problem was Sodom was about to be destroyed by G-d for it's wickedness.
Again Lot needed to be rescued. This time G-d sent angels to tell Lot to quickly get out of town. We read that Lot, thinking the angels were weary travellers, extended hospitality to them. The people of the town were enraged at Lot's act of welcoming the stranger. Lot sought to appease the mob that was banging on his door and clamouring for the strangers to come out and be abused, but to no avail. Only a miracle saved Lot from that pending catastrophe. Finally on being told to leave Sodom by the travellers, now revealed to Lot to be angels, Lot cannot convince his sons-in-law and married daughters to leave. They are swept up in Sodom's destruction. So too is Lot's wife, who after leaving the city looks back, and becomes a pillar of salt.

If that were not enough drama and loss, the Torah concludes its story of Lot with what happens in the aftermath of the devestation. Lot fled with his two daughters to a cave. They, the daughters, assumed the whole known world ended with the fires of Sodom, not just the immediate area. Rather than ask their father, they took matters into their own hands. They got Lot, their father, drunk on successive nights and slept with him inorder to get pregnant and start a new world. Each had a son from their father. Lot added the ultimate sense of disgrace to his awesome losses.
His tragedy was complete. He had now lost everything!

Okay so that's the story. Now I ask you what can we learn from it for ourselves? The Torah is telling us Lot's tale for a reason. Where can we find ourselves in the story? How does it speak to us? How are we like Lot?

I want to share with you how I experience Lot's powerful drama in a personal way.
How Lot speak's to me.

Let's understand Lot. To my way of thinking Lot lived much of his life as a junior Avraham. He was the side-kick, never the star. At some point Lot got tired of being a supporting cast member in his uncle's story. He wanted to make a mark of his own in the world. When he finally achieved the financial means and stature he moved out.
Yet Lot was influenced by Avraham. How could he not have been? Avraham was all about teaching the world of the one G-d and of ethics. Lot too wanted to be part of that mission but in a way even more outstanding.

Why did Lot pick Sodom to live in of all the available places in the region? Why? because he saw the potential of Sodom. It was a place of great beauty prior to the destruction and with fertile lands. Lot knew the city was evil. And that is precisely what attracted him. He was determined to save Sodom. He sought to do even better than Avraham. Lot expected to influence and change the seat of evil in the world. Lot would make a mark in the world indeed, one even his great uncle would be impressed by.

The problem was that Lot sought to influence Sodom by employing a strategy Avraham never used. Lot sought to become part of the community, to settle there, and change it from within. Avraham for all the good he did and influence he brought, never settled amongst the wrong-doers. He lived apart. Others came to him, or on occasion he travelled and had encounters on his journeys. Lot used a different tact. He joined the dwellers of Sodom. The Torah tells is that he sat with the elders at the gates of the city. The Torah also tells us that he became a judge. When the mob attacked his house Lot sought to appease them. He called them "my brothers".
Lot's strategy was to say "I will become one with them and they will see how good and moral I am and over time they will change."

Lot's approach was a tragic failure. Not only did it not save Sodom but it cost Lot his family, his possesions, his very honor. And what was the great mistake Lot made?
He assumed that you can influence and inspire people to change by being one with them. Not so! In order to have influence over others one needs to have distance from them. To care for them, of course. But not to join or be seen as exactly the same. Only when we hold ourselves apart can we command the respect enough to inspire the another to change.

Life shows me this truth again and again. The father will typically have greater impact on a child's way of life and personal conduct than a mother. It's not that the father loves more, or is closer to a child. On the contrary, the mother's love is often greater and she is often closer to her children. Yet precisely because she is so close she tends to have less influence of the direction of a child's life.
The distance of the father gives him the capacity to inspire change and correction.

We live in times where we celebrate informality and the breaking down
of any form of hierarchy. Parents allow their children to talk back to them and treat them as friends and even less. Teachers encourage students to call them by their first names. In the service of relationship they are willing to surrender respect. No one feels shame anymore before authority. Everyone is made the same, no matter their difference of age, wisdom, or experience.

The price we pay for this familiarity is that we have no mentors. We have so few who inspire us, who motivate us to change. The world is full of Lots, tragic figures who want to make a difference but don't want to pay the price. Only the Avraham's of the world can really engender change, and for that you have to be willing to live, to some degree, apart, to create separation, to not be the same!

Please do not misunderstand. Avraham was welcoming, gracious and kind. He extended himself to others. The purpose of his life was to give. But Avraham knew that giving is meanningful and affirming precisely when it comes from another, not from a mirror of one's self.

We too should do and care and make it a central focus of our life. But that giving should not serve to confuse the relationship between us and the one's we care for.
Only when there is distance and a sense of respect can that which we say or do matter to another and inspire them to change.

Shabbat Shalom

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