Let There Not Be Strife Among Us
“Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver and god. And he proceeded by stages from the Negev as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai, the site of the altar that he had built there at first: and there Abram invoked the Eternal by name.
Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together’ for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle—the Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land—Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north. Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the Eternal had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Eternal, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other; Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the Eternal.” (Gen. 13:1-13)
I don’t usually cite this many verses from the Torah as part of my sermon. I decided to do so this time because this is an underrated but important part of the Abraham cycle. Parashat Lech Lecha usually focuses on the big ticket items: God’s charging of the Abrahamic mission, the shenanigans of Abraham passing off his wife Sarah as his sister to Pharaoh, the weird and dark episode of the ‘Covenant between the Pieces’, the annunciation of Abraham’s progeny… but this part? Some minor incident between Lot’s and Abraham’s herdsmen? It sounds like a footnote in the narrative.
Of course, that is exactly what pulls in the rabbinic gaze. Why is this story there? It sets the stage for the big narrative events down the line, anticipating the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It helps us understand both the characters of Abram and Lot. It shows us Abram’s power and wealth: this man is not just a solitary schlepper or schnorrer – he is a walking, talking mini-city state. This passage wants to prove Abram’s entrepreneurial spirit, statesmanship and diplomacy. More importantly, it wants to demonstrate Abram’s ability to heal and to be humble. To be present for someone else by giving up a little of himself. To not only avoid conflict but to be gracious and wise in the process. In truth, this small storyline illustrates Abram’s true genius.
Any number of other scenarios would have been possible. Abram could have asserted his authority; escalated the conflict, overruled his less powerful and less wealthy younger nephew. He could have conquered and monopolized, wrapped himself in a scorched-earth doctrine, nursing his grievances with a philosophy of scarcity. He could have whined, manipulated, sown division or fostered bigotry. He could have boasted of his wealth and cared not for the welfare of others. He could have forgotten God among his newfound power.
The text lends us interesting clues to Abram’s character formation.
First of all, he includes Lot; he is inclusive.
Then, he journeys back to a location that was formative to his spirituality, between Bethel and Ai, and he seeks God out through sacrifice and prayer, reorienting himself on the center of his morality and humanity.
When he discovers strife among both camps of herdsmen, he notices. This is not just a fleeting observation of the tussles of underlings which he could have delegated or ignored altogether. Instead, he brings in the sacred intention to end the strife, while at once recognizing the diversity and complexity of the community he finds himself in—not only with regards to the herdsmen, but also with regards to the Canaanites and the Perizzites who were in the land. In short, he is culturally sensitive.
Abram neutralizes tensions; not only by appealing to the value of peace but also by appealing to the moral fabric of kinship. He reminds those in conflict that there are bonds far stronger than their tensions; that these bonds engender a loving covenant between people. And then he offers an alternative vision, pivoting away from the pettiness of scarcity thinking, shifting into graciousness and abundance.
‘Halo kol ha’aretz lefanecha?’ – ‘is not the whole land before you?’ He creates space. He allows all parties to breathe, center themselves and reassess. He invites them to hold differences as sacred while finding their own way.
Only half a week remains until the Election. This may very well be one of the most consequential elections within living memory. All parties involved consider the stakes existentially and exponentially high. The divisions in our country are cleft deeply until the bone. No matter our partisan politics or who would get our vote, all of us feel that tension hanging in the air. Indeed, the metaphorical herdsmen of Lot and Abram are profoundly at odds with each other. Like in this story, the United States is a land of great power, riches and abundance. Beautiful like Canaan, fertile like the Plain of Zoar and rich like Egypt.
This present moment calls us to be like Abram. To remind each other that, whatever happens after Tuesday, ‘anashim achim anachnu’, that we are kinsmen, or, to translate it both more literally and poetically, that we are ‘sibling people’.
Can we be like Abram? Can we center ourselves on our morality and center each other’s humanity? Can we hold difference and create space? Can we recognize grievance and pain, diversity and blessing? Can we leverage wealth and power not for prestige and conquest but for compassion and the common good?
Read back the story of Genesis 13 and see what you find—the healing words of ancient stories and their oh so modern application. We are called to do something exceedingly difficult: to journey to a land that we cannot yet see; to override every impulse of anger, competitiveness and self-righteousness; to imagine the day after… and the day after that… and that one… and the next one. To live the truth that we must truly live with one another, in this ‘more perfect union.’ To seek God; the bigger picture, the broader perspective and infinite love. To ground ourselves in humility and healing.
It is a tall order indeed. Even then, there will be brokenness. Lot and Abram did separate after all; the Torah itself acknowledges that their union was too much for the land to bear. Lot himself was presented with a stark choice; between Eden and Sodom. Between wholeness, harmony and abundance, or greed, callousness and selfishness. Lot chose to live among the latter, with consequences we will encounter later in the text. But Abram remained steadfast to his commitment to Canaan; to his mission to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
May it be so. May these United States of America fulfill its mission in the world. May we rise above division, above the callous concerns of power and greed and remember that we are sibling people. We are one not despite our differences but because of them. May all of you, dear ezrachim, dear citizens—as voters in this great land, remember your mission: to uphold the pillars of democracy and to continue breathing soul into the dream of America.
Let there, dear friends, not be ‘meribah’, strive, between us, but ‘shalom’; peace and wholeheartedness. With God’s will – ken yehi ratzon.