from the heart of jerusalem

Where you are also reveals who you are


His name was Shachar, which means the dawn, and the joke was with him around it was always dawn, because he blotted out the sun. He was a massive fellow, and watching him squeeze into the gunner’s seat, the smallest, most confined place in the tank, deep in the belly of the turret, was a sight to behold.

One would think with such a fellow sharing your tank, there would be a lot less room to breathe, but in fact the opposite was true. Somehow, his sharp sense of humor, and the smile always twinkling at the corners of his mouth, made it seem like there was lots of room, and late at night when the maneuvers were done for the night, guys would end up hanging out in our tank to shoot the breeze with Shachar. Sometimes nine or ten guys would be crowded on and in the tank, sharing a good laugh, and the smallest bag of pistachio nuts he always carried seemed to go on forever. It always fascinated me that at the end of the week, back on base, the room I shared with a different group of guys seemed a lot smaller than the tiny tank turret we all had to maneuver around in. 

It was only later, in Officer’s course, that the mysterious truth of this hit home. In the winter, out in the field, it is incredibly depressing to have to sleep in the tanks. The desert nights in which we were training are bitter cold, and finding a spot in and around the tank to stretch out was always challenging. The best place to sleep, strange as it may sound, was usually (barring rain) out on the “sipun.” or flat rear of the tank, on top of the engine. Long after the tank went quiet, the heat of the engine kept the exterior of the tank warm, which made for a cozy night’s sleep. Usually, there was a scramble to get your sleeping bag laid out there at the end of the night inspection, so you could get the best spot.

Somehow, Shachar figured out a way for all four of us to sleep out on the sipun. I thought this was a great trick, and watched how we slept as I thought it would be a great trick to share with my crew one day as an officer. But as hard as I tried, I have never been able to replicate Shachar’s feat, which is especially strange when considering how much space Shachar himself must have taken up. In fact, one night, in trying to arrange my crew in just such a manner, I nearly rolled off the tank, sleeping bag and all!

I guess space isn’t about where we are; it is somehow connected to who we are.

Perhaps this is at the root of a challenging story in this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha: “And Avram was very rich, (“heavy”) with livestock, silver and gold. … And Lot, who accompanied Avram, also had cattle and tents. And the land could not support them living together; their wealth was so great they could not dwell together.

“And there was an argument (riv) between the shepherds of Avram, and the shepherds of Lot, and the Canaanites and the Perizites then dwelled in the land. And Avram said to Lot, let there not be a quarrel (merivah) between you and me, and between my shepherds and your shepherds. After all, we are brothers. Behold, all the land is before you, why not separate from me? If you will go left (north), then I will go right (south), and if you go to the right then I will go left. (Bereishis 13:2–9)

What is going on here? Four thousand years ago, there wasn’t enough room for Avram to live with his own nephew? Stranger still, is that Avram appears to make no attempt at rapprochement, but immediately suggests a parting of the ways.

This path of separation in the face of conflict is a pattern found elsewhere in the bible, notably in the case of Yishmael. There too, when there is conflict between Yishmael, son of Hagar and Abraham, and Yitzchak, son of Abraham and Sarah, the response, on two occasions, is banishment. If our children fight with each other, should we simply get rid of one of them?

Perhaps most telling is Lot’s reaction to Avram’s suggestion:

“And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw the entire Jordan valley (plain), which was very fertile (irrigated), before Hashem destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah; it was like G-d’s own garden, like the land of Egypt, up until Tzoar. And Lot chose for himself the entire Jordan valley, and headed eastward, and they separated one from his brother. And Avram dwelled in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, casting his tent as far as Sedom. And the people of Sedom were very wicked and sinful to G-d.” (Bereishis 13:10-13)

How does someone go straight from the kindness and goodness of the tents of Abraham, to the cruelty and wickedness of Sedom? How could the nephew of Abraham even want to live in Sedom (especially when the beginning of this week’s parsha paints Lot as a partner in the journey of Abraham to an unknown land, at the behest of G-d)?

All alone in a world of pagan idolatry, Abraham leaves behind everything he knows: his home and family, the land of his birth, choosing to follow a dream to an unknown land, in pursuit of a better world. Indeed, Jewish tradition teaches that Abraham is called an “Ivri,” the source of why we are called Hebrews to this day, based on the root ever, or “the side” — because, suggests tradition, all the world was on one side, and Abraham on the other.

Wouldn’t you go anywhere if you were convinced G-d was telling you to go? But Lot didn’t have the privilege of that direct communication from G-d. He had to take Uncle Abe’s word for it.

So what happened? What went wrong? Clearly, Sedom was not a sudden flash of inspiration. If you are standing in the tents of Abraham and seeing Sedom, then you are already there. When and how did Lot go wrong? And why could Abraham not find a way to bring him back in to the fold?

It is worth noting that in between Abraham’s arrival in the land of Israel with Lot, and their separation over this mysterious friction, there is another significant event.

Almost immediately upon his arrival in the land of Israel, there is a famine in the land, and Abraham is forced to travel to Egypt in search of sustenance. (12:10-20) Indeed, the rabbis perceive this to be one of the ten great tests Abraham faces in his life. It must have been an inordinate challenge to have to leave almost as soon as he arrived. What does it do to your faith, when an act which seems to be an act of G-d forces you to abandon not just your dream, but what you are convinced is the call of G-d. It is interesting that unlike the journey he embarks upon initially to the land of Israel, here there is no communication from G-d. G-d doesn’t tell Abraham what to do; he has to figure out on his own.

Something happened to Lot down in Egypt, which had a profound influence on his worldview. Before Egypt, he is part of the family, but by the time they get back; he is walking a different path.

Lot may have physically come back from Egypt, but a part of him never leaves. Hence,

“Lot lifted up his eyes and saw the entire Jordan valley (plain), which was very fertile … like the land of Egypt.” Egypt is a society steeped in pagan idolatry, which was all about the worship of nature, epitomized by the land. Lot is so busy seeing the flocks and the land, he loses sight of what is real in this world. In fact, if what is important is the land, then obviously, it makes a lot more sense to live in the valley, where the land is so much more fertile.

So Lot, standing up in the mountains with Abraham, is really already in the valley; he is just looking for the excuse to get there. And Avram’s approach to it all is a lesson we so need to internalize, especially today.

What do you do when you have more than enough room on the mountain, but someone else is already in the valley? You have to let him go. You can’t tell, convince, or otherwise move someone to be in the mountain if they are really in the valley. To live together on the mountain, you have to be speaking with someone who is with you on the same mountain. You can discuss how you live together on the, mountain, but that can only happen if you are speaking with someone who is already a mountain person.

But if you are on the mountain and they are in the valley, you have to accept you just aren’t ready to live together on the mountain; they just aren’t there.

A number of years ago I received a challenging e-mail from a student that so disturbed me, I had to take the time to pen at least a brief response. This student, studying in the M.A. International Affairs program at George Washington University, had a disturbing session with one of her professors, who happens to be Syrian. His lecture was on the 1967 war, and he basically said, to quote this student’s letter, that “Israel invaded the Golan to get control over the water so it could channel it down to the Negev — the National Water Carrier. The occupation of Sinai and the West Bank were all just extensions of this water grabbing agenda.”

My response to her was largely on the issues themselves: How does this professor explain the nearly 1,000 shells a day that fell from the Syrian controlled Golan Heights on the kibbutzim and settlements of the north between prior to 1967? And what of Syria’s attempts to divert the waters of the Yarmuk River in 1964, in an attempt to dry up the Kinneret Lake, Israel’s only natural, freshwater lake? And what of Syria’s refusal to accept Clinton’s proposal, in exchange for a peace agreement with Israel, to upgrade Syria’s irrigation and water supply system whose faulty pipes cost Syria 47% of her natural water?

Perhaps the point of this story in the Torah is that sometimes we need to recognize when a person, or even a people, is just not ready to live up on the mountain. And when you have done what you can do, if a person is in a different place, maybe this just isn’t the time.

We may sometimes have no choice to avoid an argument. However, just because I may be in an argument, does not mean I have to let the argument be in me. Abraham, in this moment, teaches the world that where you are is not just about where you are, it really is about who you are as well.

Ultimately we can always decide that we refuse to go somewhere, inside our hearts and minds. Avraham understood that the only solution, however painful, was to allow Lot to go to where he really already was.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.