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Before You Save the World
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

The Nucleus of Civilization

More than three millennia ago, Judaism understood that the battle for society began at the home. The family – not the synagogue, not the university, not the market place, not the battlefield -- was the nucleus of civilization.
"Tell it to your child," Moses keeps on telling the Israelites in the Bible. The Torah understood that it is in the home – in the loving, nonjudgmental, and warm embrace of the home, “the spot where expressions of tenderness gush out without any sensation of awkwardness and without any dread of ridicule" (as a wise man once remarked) – where the future of humanity is created.

We are well aware today of how much of the psychological, emotional and spiritual turmoil in our lives can be traced back to dysfunctional homes. “If you don't believe in ghosts, you've never been to a family reunion,” Ashleigh Brilliant once remarked. Our problems, at least many of them, arise out of the homes in which we develop our primal identities and relationships. If there is to be reformation, if there is to be a change, if there is to be redemption, it must begin in the home. It is here that truth is learned, that integrity is cultivated, that self-discipline is instilled, that love is nurtured and that a vision for a liberated future is ingrained.

Judaism understood that what matters most, occurred not in boardrooms, but in kitchens; not by CEO’s but by mothers and fathers cuddling their children and sharing with them the story of the human potential and dignity.

This focus on the home and the family emerges once again in this Week's Torah portion (Lech Lecha).

Live and Let Live

Chapter 31 of Genesis describes Abraham's disengagement from his nephew Lot. The background to this development is clear. Both Abraham and Lot have become quite wealthy, their flocks have become numerous; the grazing lands are no longer large enough to meet their needs. Disputes break out between the shepherds of Abraham and Lot.

So Abraham tells Lot (1): "Let there be no arguments between the two of us or between our shepherds, because, after all, we are brothers.” Abraham suggests that they part ways. “If you go left then I will go right, and if you go right then I will go left.” Immediately agreeing to Abraham's proposal, Lot chooses the Jordan plain and Abraham settles in the Land of Canaan. They separate.

The story seems straightforward. Yet sensitive, as always, to subtle nuances in the biblical narrative, our sages exposed another dimension to the story.   Following the story of the disengagement, the Torah continues the narrative (2): “And G-d spoke to Abraham after Lot parted from him…” It is clearly a new sentence, yet the Torah inserts the word “and,” “And G-d spoke to Abraham,” indicating a sequence. G-d, The Midrash suggests (3), G-d had spoken also about the separation between uncle Abraham and his nephew Lot.

What did G-d say about this? The Midrash cites two perspectives. Rabbi Nechmyah believes that G-d approved. Abraham, who was childless at the time, erroneously saw in Lot his heir, both materially and spiritually. This was a position Lot could not live up to, and the separation was thus productive.  

However, Rabbi Judah presents an opposing view. G-d was profoundly critical of Abraham’s decision to part ways with Lot. “Anger was directed towards our patriarch Abraham when Lot, his nephew, left him. G-d said: 'He befriends everyone, he cleaves to everybody, but he cleaves not to Lot -- his own brother! (3)”

The Disappointment

This is a sharp critique. Abraham was the biblical paradigm of love and kindness; a heart open to people of all background and walks of life, ready to embrace them with a warm heart and a delicious meal, opening vistas to their spiritual yearnings and healing their aching souls. Abraham was the first human being to reach out beyond his own community of faith, turning Monotheism from an inner-circle tradition to a world phenomenon. Wandering Arab Bedouins felt comfortable in Abraham’s presence as did men of great scholarship.

Yet when it came to family, the rules were altered. “He cleaves to everyone,” G-d laments, “but he cleaves not to Lot -- his own brother.” With his own nephew, he somehow cannot find the right approach and appropriate words to maintain the loving connection.

Let us not be swift to judge Abraham. Lot was a deeply troubled soul. He most certainly experienced a love-hate relationship with Abraham. Abraham raised him and nurtured him, yet Lot was aware that his own father, Haran, was killed because of his support for Abraham (4). In Lot’s eyes, Abraham was indirectly responsible for his misery and yet Lot needed Abraham for his survival. This creates a quite complicated family dynamic. Perhaps Abraham felt that at this point Lot desperately needed to make it on his own, to establish his independence and deal with his inner struggles – away from the powerful presence of Abraham.

More ideas have been suggested by the biblical commentators as to the value of the disengagement (5). But G-d was still upset! You know how to embrace the entire world, could you really not find a way to embrace your own kin? You know how to invoke the name of a healing G-d in the hearts of strangers; can’t you generate healing in the heart of your brother's son?

The excuses may have been valid; the situation was indeed difficult. But G-d could still not tolerate the dichotomy: How can you attract the entire world, yet alienate your own brother?

A Hero to Your Children

We often encounter people who are kind, gracious, and non-judgmental – as long as they are dealing with strangers. Yet within their family, there is fragmentation and animosity. They can embrace the most remote stranger, but with their own brother they are often not on speaking terms…  

Throughout history, some of the most legendary figures were revered by millions, yet loathed by their own children. Albert Einstein was coined by TIME magazine as Man of the Century, yet his children saw him as a traitor. Theodor Herzl transformed the landscape of modern Jewish history, but could not inspire his own children to embrace his legacy. Ludwig Beethoven rocked the world with his 9th symphony, but his personal family situation was ugly.

Karl Marx, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, are responsible for shaping modern society; their impact on modern thought is remarkble. They have become idols for millions and icons of the new world, yet their behavior toward their closest family members was despicable. Their abuse of their wives and children is a sad commentary on how great minds can be so morally impoverished.

Would you really trust Marx's advice on society when he had not the courage to acknowledge his own son? Can you believe his theories on the poor when you learn that the only proletarian Karl Marx ever knew in person was the poor maid who worked for him for decades and was never paid?

Rousseau authored Emile, one of the most influential books on childhood education. This great thinker of the West taught millions how to educate their children, but he himself forced his wife to give their five children away at birth… He had them placed on the steps of a charitable hospital where most infants did not survive for more than a few months (6).

“Family love is messy, clinging, and of an annoying and repetitive pattern, like bad wallpaper,” Friedrich Nietzsche said. His own family history was indicative of this. The man considered to be the greatest philosopher of modern times, was loathed by most of his friends and family members. The fact remains that it is often easier to capture the attention of the masses, than the heart of your children. You can be a celebrity to millions, but a menace to those who should cherish you most.

The Rabbis in the Midrash were sensitive to the truth of Judaism, that G-d is intolerant of a universal soul who has not the time and patience to cultivate loving and genuine relationships within his or her own family. Before you embrace a stranger, make sure you learn how to embrace your own brother; before you save the world, make sure you save your marriage. Before you rise up to give a brilliant presentation to the 300 employees in your company, make sure you are on speaking terms with your siblings.

Saving the world

The dichotomy G-d was lamenting can be seen in another area as well. There are movements within Judaism that are extraordinarily successful in reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and opening windows to their souls; yet many of their own youths are leaving them. They know how to inspire the whole world, besides their own children. “He befriends everyone, but he cleaves not to his own brother!” How is it that sometimes we know how to be there for everybody else, beside our own?

Abraham, at the end, internalized G-d’s critique. When his nephew was in danger, he risked his life to save him. At a moment of truth, Abraham was there for Lot like nobody else would be. The truly great heroes are those who are first heroes within their own families.


1) Genesis 13:8-9.
2) Ibid. 13:14.
3) Midrash Rabah Bereishis 41:8. Cf. commentators to the midrash ibid.
4) Rashi to Genesis 11:28.
5) It is possible that Abraham suggested to Lot the idea of separation between them, in order to test his reaction. When he observed that Lot enthusiastically embraced this idea, it demonstrated to Abraham that their roads have indeed grown apart and that it would be counterproductive for Lot to continue to live under his domain.
6) Paul Johnson in his book "Intellectuals" reaches this conclusion: "Beware intellectuals, not only should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice."


Posted on October 18, 2007
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