Connecting to the Tzaddik on the Inside
In this week’s parsha we read of the dispute between the shepherds of Abraham and those of Lot: “Abram said to Lot, ‘Let there be no strife, please, between me and you…. Separate yourself, please, from me. If you turn to the left, then I will go to the right; and if you turn to the right, then I will go to the left’ ” (Genesis 13:8-9). The Sages said, “Abraham’s cattle used to go out muzzled, but Lot’s did not go out muzzled” (Bereshith Rabba 41:5), for Lot’s shepherds were wicked and grazed their cattle in other people’s fields, thereby benefiting from theft.
This apparently did not bother Lot in any way, and no doubt he even agreed with what they were doing. In fact a love for money existed in Lot, a desire that can make a person lose his mind and forget G-d. Even if we see a tendency towards hospitality in Lot (since he would later invite angels into his home), after this incident Abraham said to him, “Separate yourself…from me.” Despite Abraham’s tremendous kindness, he pushed Lot away instead of drawing him closer. Why was this situation so serious? It is because good and evil were intertwined in Lot, and his proximity to Abraham would have tarnished the latter’s name. In fact people would have distanced themselves from Abraham, and he would have been unable to bring them under the wings of the Shechinah. Thus the Name of Heaven would have been desecrated. The fact that Lot reached a point at which both good and evil became part of him, however, remains difficult for us to accept. On one hand it seems that Lot had a good heart, for he practiced generosity like Abraham, but on the other hand he acted like a thief, allowing his cattle to graze in other people’s fields. In the Mishnah we learn, “Not study, but practice is the essential thing” (Perkei Avoth 1:17). The Torah also tells us, “Know this day and take it unto your heart” (Deuteronomy 4:39), which means that it is not enough just to know the Torah in order to come closer to Hashem; we must actually carry it out! We must infuse the knowledge of the Torah deep within our hearts and live accordingly. Only in this way can we come closer to Hashem and become completely spiritual.
To explain this, we note that there are two kinds of students: One studies only to learn, as well as to relate some fine-sounding things to his friends, but not to infuse them into his heart. He would never think of doing that, for with him everything is superficial. There is another second kind of student, one we should all emulate. His sole purpose is to infuse his Torah learning into his heart, to gather everything there, and thus to make everything work together. How could Lot have acted in such a lowly way that he descended to the forty-ninth gate of impurity? The answer is that initially he was actually close to Abraham, resembling him in all his deeds and following Hashem’s ways just as he did. After a certain time, however, Lot became accustomed to living with him. Thus since Lot’s kindness was superficial in nature – not stemming from his heart, nor having the goal of rectifying the ills of the many or the few – he fell from the spiritual level that he had initially attained. Hence we are told, “And Lot with him, to the Negev” (Genesis 13:1), for at that point he had already spiritually deteriorated. Even though he still resembled Abraham somewhat (including showing hospitality), it was certainly superficial, for it did not stem from his heart. It was not truly sincere.
Lot differed from Abraham’s other disciples insofar as they strived to progress spiritually. They put an effort into growing, renewing themselves each day, and not by force of habit. Hence they received what they deserved. For example, the Sages said that Eliezer merited passing “from the category of the accursed into that of the blessed” (Bereshith Rabba 60:7). Even today Eliezer serves the holy Patriarchs (Bava Batra 58a), for he drank from the Torah of his master Abraham for the sake of others, doing so sincerely and from the depths of his heart.
Things were not the same with Lot, for he did everything by force of habit. Although Lot may have partaken of Abraham’s Torah for the sake of others (insofar as he recounted all the wondrous things that his teacher did), they nevertheless did not enter his heart, and they certainly did not stem from it. Because Lot’s conduct was not sincere, he descended to the lowest levels, to the abyss, acting like the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham still attempted to have a good influence on Lot and to encourage his repentance. We find an allusion to this in Abraham’s words to Lot: “Let there be no strife, na [please], between me and you” (Genesis 13:8), for the word na always signifies a request. Abraham said “please” to Lot, not quite speaking in a decisive way, so as to leave him an opening for repentance. Lot could have pleaded with Abraham to help him return to the right path, but he chose not to. He made the desires and vanities of the world – not a connection to the tzaddik – his primary concern. Hence he departed from his uncle Abraham.
We see something like this in our own time, when great Torah scholars are careless with Lashon Harah despite its tremendous gravity. Why does this happen? It is because they study Halachah only to teach others. As for themselves, they do not learn it to perfection, with the utmost clarity. Furthermore, all their learning is superficial and has become second nature to them. They do not learn Halachah to put it into practice, to know and internalize it. Therefore when they connect to the tzaddik, this too is by force of habit, not with true sincerity, the consequences of which cannot be foreseen.
From here we learn just how important it is to connect ourselves to the tzaddik with wholehearted sincerity. We must serve Hashem with real feeling, not by going through the motions, otherwise who knows where this may lead? It is in this way that we can elevate ourselves in serving Hashem, until we reach the fiftieth gate of purity.