Wealth and Strife: Can Rich Relatives Live Together?

Genesis 12:1-17:27

By Peretz Rodman

Published October 22, 2004, issue of October 22, 2004.
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Lot and Abram, nephew and uncle, had migrated together from Mesopotamia to Canaan, and from Canaan down to Egypt. Now they returned together from Egypt to Canaan. Here, after traveling a long and arduous path, side by side, they reached a parting of the ways.

Both men, the Torah tells us, had attained wealth. “Abram was heavily laden with cattle, with silver and gold” (13:2). “Lot, too,” we read, “had flocks and herds and tents” (13:4). And now the verse that explains the split between them:

“And the land could not support their dwelling together, for their substance was great, and they could not dwell together” (13:6).

Such an oddly repetitive explanation! We would understand it so much better if we had only the first two clauses without the third: The land could not sustain two households now grown rich — well, then, they had no choice but to part ways. But in fact Genesis insists on adding that third clause, forming what seems to be a conclusion [read it with no comma after “great”]: “they could not dwell together” precisely because “their substance was great.” It was no mere technical problem, no insufficiency of pastureland, that caused the breakup. It was a personal rift brought about by their very wealth.

That makes a tempting reading. We would not be the first to conclude that it was precisely when things were no longer rough, when the wandering was done, the famine had faded into family lore, and divine favor apparently had showered them with possessions galore — just then it was that the two well-heeled wanderers found it impossible to settle down in close proximity to each other.

One writer attributes to Rabbi Dov Baer, the 18th-century Maggid of Mezeritch, this observation: “It was not poverty but precisely the opposite — wealth, the possessions that had been acquired — that disrupted the peace that had existed between them. ‘For their substance was great, and [therefore] they could not dwell together.’ The divisions and oppositions among people usually emerge precisely because of their having ‘great substance,’ because of the envy one person feels toward another because the other has more than he does.”

But is such an explanation sustainable? Does the Torah, like so much of folk literature, romanticize the simple life and hint broadly that the rich are invariably less happy than those of humble circumstances? Have chroniclers of poverty not taught us that good people, when deprived, will resort to crimes against property and person — even against each other — to alleviate their suffering?

In fact, the Torah’s portrayal of these two characters lays out before us the reason for their separation. Consider how each responds to his newfound wealth. Immediately after the description of Abram’s possessions, we read: “And he went on in stages from the Negev up to Bet El, to the place where his tent had been before, between Bet El and Ai, to the place of the altar he had made the first time, and Abram invoked there the name of the Lord” (13:3). Abram returns to the place where he had first settled after being commanded to “go… to the land I will show you.” His concern is to make this homecoming reinforce for his household the values he had espoused before the unfortunate detour to Egypt.

Here is Lot’s thinking, by contrast (13:10-13): “Lot raised his eyes and saw the whole plain of the Jordan, saw that all of it was well-watered… like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt…. And Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan…. Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, and he set up his tent near Sodom.” In case we are unfamiliar with the region, Genesis immediately adds: “Now the people of Sodom were very evil offenders against the Lord.”

Lot’s choice is focused on material considerations. The place where he lived might have been Eden-like in its lushness, but it reminded one no less of Egypt. And what neighbors! Imagine the goings-on in the towns down the road, Sodom and Gomorrah. That is where Lot’s herdsmen and even his children would have to go for trade, services and entertainment.

With such opposing considerations in how and where to invest their riches, how could Abram and Lot ever have stayed together? As the 19th-century commentator known by the acronym “Malbim” wrote: “‘They could not dwell together’ after Lot began to turn away from Abraham’s principles and way of life.” It was, in fact, not their wealth that separated them. For each of them, wealth became a test of character.

Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based teacher, writer and translator eager to be put to the test of wealth.

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