Parashat Lech Lecha
How to Handle Prosperity
-Rabbi Dr. Ronen Lubitz-
It is not an uncommon thing for people to get along with each other very well in situations wrought with distress and desperation, while comfortable situations often breed confrontation. The Torah presents us with this phenomenon at the earliest stages of our encounter with Avraham. The first story telling of Avraham’s life in Eretz Yisrael is “There was a famine,” and the second is “And there was quarrelling.” During the famine and the difficult journey to and from Egypt, Lot travels with Avraham and they get along marvelously. However, in the second episode the Torah describes how Hashem’s blessing to Avraham quickly became reality: “Now Avram was very laden with livestock, silver and gold … Also Lot who went with Avram had flocks, cattle and tents.” It is at this point that we learn of the surprising result of this bounty: a quarrel breaks out between the shepherds and Avraham is forced to separate from his nephew.
According to the Rabbis, the dispute between the shepherds stemmed from a fundamental and ideological disagreement. We find two approaches in the Midrash for explaining the background to the dispute, each succinctly summarized in Rashi’s commentary on the words “and there was quarrelling.” According to the first approach, the dispute arose from an ethical-moral-legal question: “Since Lot’s herdsmen were wicked and they pastured their animals in fields belonging to others, Avram’s herdsmen rebuked them for committing robbery.” The second approach is that the dispute was of a national-territorial nature, regarding inheritance of Eretz Yisrael: Lot’s shepherds responded, “the land was given to Avram, who has no heir, so Lot will inherit him.”
However, the Torah does not reveal the nature of the quarrel, only a factual description: “And the land could not support them dwelling together for their possessions were abundant and they were unable to dwell together.” Taken literally, it appears that an abundance of possessions was the direct cause of the dispute. This approach is adopted by Ramban (Nachmanides), who writes: “Taken literally, the dispute was over the cattle, as the land did not support them.” The seemingly unnecessary repetition that appears in the verse regarding their inability to coexist clearly emphasizes the social danger that is created when great wealth is amassed. The accumulation of wealth and assets creates a fertile environment for argument and dispute. The Torah apparently purposely refrains from stating fundamental and ideological reasons for the shepherds’ dispute, as it wants us to use the dispute to learn the rule that “he who has more property also has more social anxiety.” Ramhal, in the first chapter of his book Mesillat Yesharim, speaks of the challenges of poverty and wealth, and the two initial stories relating to Avraham clearly show how a condition of comfort and prosperity sometimes constitutes a more difficult challenge than a condition of distress and desperation.
The family feud between the shepherds of Avraham and Lot illustrates to us that even family ties do not guarantee people’s ability to get along in times of prosperity.
Avraham presents an alternative model to that of Sodom and its sister cities. According to Avraham, one can accommodate abundance through moderation, restraint and forbearance. Avraham displayed these qualities when handling the shepherds’ dispute, in that he allowed Lot to choose his preferred living space. He continues to utilize these abilities when foregoing all of the bounty taken in his victory over the four kings (in his words, “If so much as a thread to a shoestrap”). Later on, Avraham is revealed as someone who has the ability to act with forbearance toward his wife Sarah in the Hagar and Ishmael episode, toward Avimelech when the latter takes Sarah, and again when Avimelech’s servants steal Avraham’s well water. It is not surprising then that it was Avraham who made the greatest imaginable concession when he was prepared to sacrifice his son. The detailed account of Avraham’s hospitality toward his guests is also illustrative of Avraham’s forbearance, as is the final account provided by the Torah of his life, the negotiation of the purchase of Ma’arat Hamachpelah (the Cave of Machpelah), in which he is again exhibits forbearance with respect to his money.
Avraham was chosen in order to command “his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, doing charity and justice.” As opposed to Malki-Zedek in parashat Lech Lecha, who was a priest to God the Most High and whose actions seemingly were all of a spiritual nature, Avraham was blessed “of God, the Most High, maker of heaven and earth,” whose deeds were of both a spiritual and natural quality, directed toward both God and man. Restoring natural order through a fight for justice and benevolence was his top priority. Thus, Avraham is transformed from Av-ram, whose head is up high, to Avraham, the father of the masses, who does not distance himself from the tumult of the crowd but acts on its behalf.
To be liberal with one’s money is one of the words of advice given by Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakanah to his students when the latter asked how he had achieved even longer life than Job, who apparently was very well off financially and was considered a righteous man because of his generosity (Bava Bathra 15b). Today, many elements in society live in constant financial hardship, while at the same time we, as a whole, live in a society of abundance in which many people enjoy prosperity and great amounts of wealth. In order to properly manage such a situation we must follow in Avraham’s footsteps and succeed in embedding the ability to exercise moderation, restraint and forbearance with respect to the ethical world of the individual and that of the group, in order that the earth shall be able to sustain us all.
Rabbi Dr. Ronen Lubitz serves as the rabbi of Nir Etzion and lectures at Sha’anan Academic Religious Teachers College and at Haifa University.