Avraham Avinu’s nephew, Lot’s is one of the most enigmatic characters in the Torah. There are a number of instances in the Torah which indicate that he possessed a certain level of righteousness and a number of other places which suggest that he had many flaws. On the one hand he is one of the only people that join Avraham on his spiritual journey to Eretz Yisroel, showing a sense of self-sacrifice and willingness to learn from Avraham; He consistently excels in chesed, even risking his life in Sodom to host strangers; He is complimented by Chazal for his self-control in not revealing that Avraham and Sarah were married; He even eats matzos on Pesach! Moreover, he never seems to commits a clear sin b’meizid. On the other hand, he shows a great love of money and znus which causes him to leave Avraham and settle in the evil city of Sodom; He lets himself be made drunk and seduced by his younger daughter after he realized what had happened the previous night with his elder daughter. His shepherds are moreh heter to allow their sheep graze on other people’s land; And worst of all, when he separates from Avraham, the Medrash tells us that he says, “I don’t want Avraham or his G-d.” This is particularly difficult, because we see, that even after this strong statement, Lot seemed to still have a recognition that Hashem was the true G-d.
To answer this question it is instructive to turn to an incident in Parshas Vayishlach, Yaakov Avinu, on his return to Eretz Yisroel, sends a message to his hostile brother Esav, “I lived with Lavan.” Rashi elaborates on Yaakov’s words: “I lived with the evil Lavan and I kept the 613 mitzvos and I did not learn from his evil ways.” Yaakov is telling Esav that he has maintained his righteousness despite living with Lavan for so many years. However, Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman zt”l asks, why did Yaakov need to say the second part of the sentence about not learning from Lavan’s evil ways; If Yaakov kept all the mitzvos then obviously he did not learn from Lavan’s evil ways! He answers that, in truth, shemiras hamitvos and learning from the ways of reshaim do not necessarily go hand in hand. A person can keep all the mitzvos and nevertheless be influenced by values that are alien to Torah. A person can know the truth; that there is a G-d and that He gave the Torah to the Jewish people on Har Sinai and that this recognition requires following His commands. As a result, he grudgingly accepts that he must follow the Torah because if he does not then the consequences will be very unpleasant. However, his sheifos in life do not coincide with the Torah’s view, and he may devote his life to such goals as making money, hedonism, or acquiring power and honor, and all the while he would not explicitly break any laws of the Torah.
Lot represents the classic example of this duality. This is illustrated by a glaring contradiction in the passukim at the beginning of Parshas Lech Lecha. The Torah, describing Avraham’s departure to Eretz Yisroel, says that, “Avraham went as Hashem had commanded him, and Lot went with him.” The very next passuk says that, “Avraham took Sarai his wife and his nephew Lot.” At first Lot went willingly with Avraham, but then Avraham needed to take him forcefully. It seems that there were two conflicting forces guiding Lot’s actions. He recognized that there was one G-d and that this truth required accompanying Avraham on his spiritual journey. However, whilst knowing the truth, his desires in life did not necessarily include leaving behind his whole life for a spiritual quest, he loved money and traveling as a pauper did not promise great riches!
With this explanation we can approach Lot with a whole new level of understanding. He recognized the truth in Avraham’s teachings and the obligations that accompanied this recognition. Consequently he never blatantly transgressed any Torah mitzvos. He actively observed Pesach and, hachnasas orchim because he knew that was required of him. However, his sheifos in life were NOT to achieve closeness to G-d and to develop himself spiritually. Instead he was driven by a desire for pleasures, epitomized by money and znus. What happens when a person is faced with this dichotomy - he knows that he must keep the Torah because it is true but he is driven by goals that conflict with it. Lot’s actions answer this question; He could never bring himself to sin but deep down he wanted to fulfill his desires. Consequently, even after he became aware of what had happened with his elder daughter, he nevertheless allowed himself to be seduced the next night in order that he could fulfill his taiva without blatantly doing so. Another outcome of Lot’s character is that he made life decisions that clearly indicated where his heart lay; he preferred to leave Avraham and live in Sodom, showing a clear preference of love of gashmius over ruchnius. It is hard to say that this action is technically forbidden but it clearly reflects where his desires lay. We can also now understand how Lot could say that he wanted no part in Avraham of Hashem and yet continue to observe certain mitzvos! This statement was a rejection of Avraham’s hashkafas hachaim that emphasized closeness to G-d and rejection of base physicality. However, Lot still knew that there was a G-d whose instructions had to be followed. When a person lives his life acknowledging the truth of Torah but simultaneously pursuing goals alien to spirituality, the inevitable result is that his descendants and students will follow in his path and probably degenerate even further.
This also explains the behavior of Lot’s shepherds. The Torah does not say that Lot explicitly instructed them to steal, however it is they were strongly influenced by his love of wealth. Therefore they placed greater priority to that goal than avoiding gezel, and as a consequence they created a dubious excuse to justify their thievery. This dichotomy is also apparent in Lot’s daughters. Rashi brings a Medrash that their kavana was leshem znus. However, the Gemara in Horayos says that their kavana was leshem mitzvo! The Maharal explains that they were driven by both the kavano for znus and for the mitzvo! It seems that they inherited these contradictory desires from their father.
These two elements of Lot manifest themselves later in history in the form of two of his descendants, Ruth and Orpah. They are daughters of the King of Moav, Eglon; they marry Jewish men but become widowed. They choose to leave their birthplace and accompany their mother-in-law Naomi on her return to Eretz Yisroel from Moav. They are prepared to give up their royal status and join Naomi in poverty. Naomi repeatedly tells them to return until Orpah finally gives in and returns to her life in Moav, Ruth, however, persists in her desire to remain with Naomi and convert to Judaism. This is a key moment in history - the two sisters are faced with the battle between clinging to the truth of Torah, or returning to the pleasures of life in Moav. This conflict represents the same dichotomy as that which characterized Lot - living according to the truth versus striving to satisfy taivas. On this occasion, the two attitudes split between the two women. Orpah is pulled by the same desires that plagued Lot - Chazal tell us that on the very that she returned to Moav, she committed many gross acts of znus. The culmination of her decision was her great-grandson Goliath, a man who was totally devoid of spirituality. Ruth, in contrast, clung to that part of Lot which knew the truth, she realized that she was undertaking a very difficult task in life, but she knew that it was the only true path. Her decision to cling to the truth ultimately lead to the birth of David HaMelech and will produce Mashiach.
Our job is to emulate Ruth and let our deep recognition of the truth be the driving force behind our desires. This is not easy in present day society . The western world persists in convincing us that the source of happiness and success is physical satisfaction, money, honor and power. It is quite possible for a person to observe the mitzvos and simultaneously be driven by these goals. The account of Lot teaches us about the consequences of such an attitude. A person’s observance will inevitably be compromised when he is faced with a conflict of interest between these dual driving forces. For example a person must ask himself, Is his ikar goal to make a living or to get close to Hashem. Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to make a living, but it should only be a means to an end, a way of providing for one’s family and enabling them to live a rich Torah life. If a person views success in his career as the source of his happiness, then he will inevitably be pulled away from ruchnius. One common result of this is that his learning and Avodas Hamidos suffers. Many other life decisions will be defined by a person’s true sheifos; how much time he spends involved in mitzvos as opposed to making money; where he chooses to live and where he sends his children to school. One may think that these areas do not involve explicit issurim but they define whether a person’s life is driven by a desire to do Ratson Hashem or something else. Moreover, when a person is faced with this battle between his desires and his knowledge of the truth, then, it is very likely that he will come to be more lenient in halacho, justifying questionable behavior as being mutar. A good example of this is that one may be overly lenient in the area of mixing with the opposite gender as a result of taiva. Another is that a person may feel the need to compromise on his standards in kashrus in order to be able to mix with his non-Jewish business associates. We also learn from Lot that if we follow his path, then our children and students will do the same, but eventually the powerful pull of Western society will overcome the deep recognition of truth. The only way to avoid this disastrous but all too common phenomena is to clarify why we keep the Torah - is it because of grudging recognition that we have to, or also because we know that it is the best and indeed, only way of living a truly meaningful life. May we all merit to play our role in bringing Mashiach.