Shabbat candles: 5:59 p.m.
Torah reading: Genesis 12:1-17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Two men went down to Egypt in this week’s parasha.
Only one returned.
Abraham sought relief from a regional famine, and, foreshadowing the path of his descendants, made his way south, to Egypt. He was accompanied by his nephew, Lot. But, while Abraham, after passing off Sarah as his sister, returned triumphant to the land of Divine promise, Lot left his heart in the Cairo of yesteryear.
How else can one explain the eyes of the nephew in a later scene, when they are back in the Land of Israel? The uncle and his nephew must part ways, “when there was strife between the herdsmen of [Abraham’s] cattle and the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle.” Abraham said, “Let there be no strife… because we are brethren,” and he gives Lot the first choice of the divided territory. The younger man “lifts his eyes and sees… all the plains of the Jordan,” where the land of Sodom and Gomorrah is “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt” [Gen. 13:2-10].
In other words, all this time, as Abraham was looking forward to his destiny in Israel, Lot was looking for the chance to return to his promised land — the land of Egypt.
This insight, for which I am indebted to Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center, transformed my understanding of Lot’s subsequent path. When the townspeople of Sodom demand that he turn over his angel-guests, Lot tries to placate them by offering instead his two daughters to the mob [Gen. 19:1-8]. Not exactly a fatherly gesture, but totally understandable in light of the immorality of ancient Egypt. Those daughters absorb his morals and ideals. After the destruction of Sodom, stranded in a cave with their father and fearing the worst, they set up incestuous encounters with him. And Lot, conveniently drunk, cooperates fully, because finally he has created his own Egypt [Gen. 19:30-36]. Stranded on his own desert isle with two beautiful women, he has come home. He has reached his promised land.
We each have a promised land, but some of us have more than one. We have the one to which we pay (or pray) lip service. And then we have the one hidden away in our heart of hearts, the one we might not even admit to ourselves. Part of the religious life is learning to discern these promised lands and choose between them.
The ceremony of Pidyon Ha-Ben (the redemption of the firstborn male after 30 days) contains one line deserving of Jack Benny. As the father of the child prepares to give five silver coins to the Kohen, the latter, holding the baby, asks, “What do you want more — these five coins or your son?” What a question! I have yet to meet the parent who responds, “I’m thinking…”
But at second glance, the question is not so absurd. It is, in fact, the first iteration of a demand that will repeat itself numerous times, in different forms, for the duration of these parents’ child-rearing years. It is the demand that you choose between promised lands. Do you want the promised land of the annual leased car, or that of a Hebrew day school for your child? Which do you want more? Not so easy to answer this time, is it? Do you want the promised land of Pesach at a hotel, or that of Jewish summer camps, years of study in Israel, even a thoroughly Jewish collegiate experience? It’s not just five coins any more.
Jewish life, as currently constituted, is a series of increasing financial sacrifices. Some, one can cogently argue, should not be necessary, and cannot continue without leading to communal disaster. These pages have seen passionate discussions of day school tuition woes, kosher food premiums and synagogue dues doldrums. But for most of us, the costs are not going away. They force us to look both inside and beyond ourselves to set priorities. They force us daily to answer the simple question: Where is your promised land?
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg serves as rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills and teaches Judaic Studies at the SAR Academy.