“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.” -Genesis 13: 5-6
Parshat Lech-Lecha is one of the most fascinating and thematically rich Torah portions in our yearly cycle. In this parsha, we are presented with a wide array of emotions ranging from drama, tragedy and triumph and the tone ranges from quiet to thunderous. From a macro-perspective, Lech-Lecha is a recording of change and growth where we see Abram receive his true name of Abraham and thus the fulfillment of the first portion of his holy mission’s actualization. We read about war and degradation, but we also encounter the first moment of circumcision, and thus, the recording of a deep covenant between God and creation.
We also see moments concerned with humanly needs, including the excerpt posted as the epigraph to this commentary, which discusses the wealth that is divided between Abraham and his nephew, Lot. In this brief passage, we already see the issues of class, access to resources and the inherent inequality thereof in the land of Israel. It seems that even millennia before social movements and politicians placed their ambitions in combating or exploring the problems of wealth, the Torah laid down approaches to understanding the need for a balanced and skeptical view of excessive wealth and its impact on interpersonal development.
The Rabbis seemed to have picked up on this biblical observation, especially about the challenges of extreme wealth in one direction or the other. One midrash explains that, typically, a significant problem on one side of the scale is that people in poverty can’t live together because extreme poverty has the potential to lead to violence. However, those who hoard their wealth and use it as an excuse to influence society in such a way that leads to the regressive treatment of those who have nothing are also in violation of Judaism’s commitment to fairness and justice, making extreme wealth just as dangerous as extreme poverty.
Indeed, part of creating a safe society for all is addressing the underlying root problems of poverty. Opulence often grows a sense of entitlement, which leads to corruption, which leads to an exploitation of those without access to the same resources — be they institutional, educational or political. Consider how Egypt’s prosperity factored into the devaluing of the Israelites or how America’s growth to a superpower was largely dependent on slave labor. Being charitable, to remove guilt, does not erase one’s oppression which enabled that charity. When one views those with less means as a transactional object toward one’s personal fulfillment, then one loses his or her central values to a life of lavishness.
On the other hand, Judaism does not condemn wealth. While there are serious risks that come along with wealth, that does not make the wealth, when earned with integrity, itself objectionable. But the responsible approach requires us not only to accept wealth but to think together about our moral obligations, individually and collectively, to ensure wealth adds dignity rather than destroys spirits. Deuteronomy 15 reminds us that while there always be people who are poor that we must nevertheless never desist from supporting them. In the case of Lot and Abr(ah)am, one might argue that “the land could not support them” precisely because “their possessions were so great” and that this is not a space-issue, but a relationship-issue. This is to say: the problem is not about enough land but how they view that land. The family can no longer remain a family due to greed and jealousy. It was precisely their relationship to wealth that made it impossible for them to dwell together. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests, on this verse, that there really was enough land for the two of them, however, Lot’s desire for more than what was necessary led him to leave Abraham. Today, there are enough resources to support every human and every animal and yet the exploitation and greed that is so rampant leads to global conflicts and national strife.
Based on this passage, and many sprinkled throughout our wisdom tradition, Judaism strongly condemns a society that tolerates extreme poverty. Rather than retreat into moral callousness by citing “the markets,” or “the job creators” as vehicles of inevitable progress, our Torah portion here asks us to rise above the myopia of the next payday. Like Abraham, we can leave behind the idol worship of possessions and instead seek spiritual currency by helping others, advocating for the less fortunate and creating an environment where all people have the opportunity to actualize their fullest selves. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 17 books on Jewish ethics. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.