Parashat Lekh Lekha 5780

Is Not the Whole Land Before You?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Lekh Lekha
By Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD

Every year on Simhat Torah, in my home community of Romemu, we unroll the entire Torah and the whole community holds it in a circle. Everyone present receives a biblical verse for the year. Most people draw a verse from a basket with many biblical verses on slips of paper. Some of us like to do it the “old-fashioned way”: by closing our eyes and pointing to the scroll. That’s what I did this year, and my finger landed on this passage:

“Avram said to Lot, “Let there not be a quarrel between me and you, between my shepherds and yours, for we are relatives (anashim ahim). Is not the whole land (kol ha’aretz) before you? Please separate from me. If you go left, I will go right, and if you go right, I will go left.” (Gen 13:8-9)

It seemed an ominous passage to me: irreversible separation between close relatives, one going one way and one the other. Avram’s nephew Lot has been traveling with him for years. The two men gain flocks and grazing land is scarce. After a fight between their shepherds, Avram suggests Lot choose a place to live, somewhere away from Avram and his people. Lot chooses the well-watered land of the plain and the city of Sodom; Avram heads for Hebron and the terebinths of Mamre. Aside from a brief encounter when Avram rescues Lot and his family during a war, the two don’t see each other again. I nervously wondered what this verse meant for my year, for my life. Was some quarrel or separation brewing? Or was the verse reminding me to separate myself from the corruption overtaking parts of my society? I wasn’t sure, and set the verse aside for further thought in weeks and months to come.

But when I sat down to write this D’var Torah and opened my Tanakh to the parashah, my eye immediately fell on the same passage. So it seems the words have more to say to me. I want to try to read them in a way that offers us wisdom for the present.

When I look at the passage in its larger context, I see that Avram sees the land as divided in two: right and left, north and south. Lot will choose one half and Avram the other. We may understand this as generosity on Avram’s part. When their differences become too great, Avram chooses not to settle accounts with his nephew by fighting. Instead, he uses separation as a tool of peace. He suggests he and his nephew each go their own way, and even allows his nephew first pick of the available land. “The world is wide enough for both Lot and me,” he says (a la Lin-Manuel, writer of Hamilton, who wrote the song “The World Was Wide Enough”).

Maybe part of what the text is teaching us is that there is such a thing as irreconcilable difference. It’s not surprising that Rabbi Nina Cardin picked this passage as a central text for her contemporary divorce ritual: it beautifully expresses that sometimes quarreling humans need to part and move on. Angry humans need space from one another. Abused or oppressed people need space from their abusers. And sometimes we need to separate from entities that might corrupt us. In fact, the Zohar Hadash interprets the verse to refer to the soul and the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. In this interpretation, the soul says to the yetzer hara: “Please separate from me.”

But as I seek the wisdom of this text for me in the coming year, I find that I keep focusing on the phrase: “Is not the whole land before you?” Lot sees a piece of the land: kol kikar hayarden, “the whole plain of the Jordan.” (Gen. 13:11) He sees wealth and abundance. Avram sees kol ha’aretz, the whole land (Gen. 13:9), in all of its diversity. Midrash Lekah Tov adds to the poignancy of this by commenting that the two men are standing at Beit El at the time: in the place where Jacob will have his vision of the ladder between heaven and earth. Lot’s vision includes what most appeals to him. Avram’s vision includes the whole. Avram is able to hold the image of oneness even at a painful moment of duality.

God seems to support Avram’s way of perceiving. Consider the following verses:

Then YHWH said to Avram, after Lot had separated from him, “Please raise your eyes and look out from the place where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for all the land that you see I give to you and your seed forever.” (Gen. 13:14-15)

The words kol ha’aretz, “the whole land,” repeat here. Avram, having been willing to give up half the land, now has a vision of his connection to the whole. Maybe it is because of his willingness to settle a quarrel by giving up something that he receives this powerful promise. And, maybe, God is reminding him that the land– and the world– has no real divisions. Even when we separate from one another, we cannot go far. We mortals may live in the olama di-peruda, the world of separation (as the kabbalists call it), but there is an underlying unity among us, even in painful moments of division. Our fates are intertwined, just as the many parts of an ecosystem depend on one another. That is why Avram goes to rescue Lot when Lot is in trouble. Though the two men have separated, Avram knows they are still related, still part of one family. In this reading, the “whole land” that Avram inherits is wholeness itself.

My Torah verse for the year is not easy. It contains scarcity, division, and loss. And, it also contains oneness. It is a reminder that even when I quarrel with others, even when I genuinely need space from them, we are still anashim ahim: relatives and kinfolk. I may not be able to find common ground with everyone, and yet the ground we all stand on is holy. We are intertwined, and the earth we live on cannot be truly divided. What affects one of us affects everyone. If we perceive truly, if we pay attention to what lies beyond the quarrels and boundaries, we will know that the whole land is always before us.

Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR. She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons—as well as the forthcoming Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah.