Parashat Lech L’cha: Lot’s Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’

Parashat Lech L’cha: Lot’s Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’

(delivered by Rabbi J.B. Sacks on November 4, 2022)

I remember the thrill of seeing Porgy and Bess for the first time. It was a 1935 English-language tragic opera by George Gershwin.[1] It features a cast of classically trained African-American singers, a daring artistic choice at the time. Porgy is a disabled black street beggar living in Catfish Row, based on Cabbage Row, a very depressed section of Charleston, South Carolina.

In the second act, Porgy seems resigned to his life, but happily so, as he sings “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’.” Yet, that is not true. Porgy has a lot. Porgy is filled with ingenuity. For example, he has made a cart out of junk and an old goat, but this provides him with mobility and a sense of freedom.

Even more important, he is a wellspring of love, spirit, and strength. He takes in Bess, nurtures her back to health, and love redeems them both, at least for a time.

Sometimes, people who seem to have so little to us onlookers, actually have so much; while those who seem to us to have so much, often have merely “plenty o’ nuttin.”

Let’s take, for example, the case of Lot, a character in tomorrow’s Torah reading. In contrast to the strong, rich character of Porgy, Lot seems to lack character, and seems unconcerned about it.

He’s introduced at the beginning of the reading, when the text informs us that our ancestor Abram went forth as HaShem had commanded. It then adds וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ אִתּ֖וֹ ל֑וֹט (va-yelech ito Lot), that Lot went with him.[2] It does not tell us who Lot was or what his relationship to Abram might be, although a bit later, we are told he is Abram’s nephew. Still, we are not told which of Abram’s siblings is Lot’s father. In the rest of the chapter, we find high drama when Abram and Sarah are in Egypt, and Abram gets in trouble with Pharaoh. Where is Lot in all of this? He seems nowhere to be found; he does not offer any help.

The beginning of the next chapter[3] speaks of Lot as a “hanger-on,” a “me, too” sort of fellow, who, nonetheless, leaned heavily on his uncle. The text states states, “Abram went out Egypt, he, his wife, all his possession,  וְל֥וֹט עִמּ֖וֹ (v’Lot imo), and Lot with him.” The two Hebrew words, וְל֥וֹט עִמּ֖וֹ (v’Lot imo) sum up the man. Lot was a noch shlepper, literally, one who drags behind and thus, a coat-tail rider. He initiated nothing, and gave nothing. He was merely a tag-along who took advantage of Abram, taking everything that he could lay his hands on.

When I was growing up, I loved One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales. Also known as The Arabian Nights, it was framed by a narrative of the beautiful Scheherazade, who falls out of favor with her husband, the king. In order to save her own life, she has to tell him a new tale every night that pleases him.

Among the tales were stories of Sinbad the Sailor. In one of these, Sinbad found himself in a deep gorge surrounded by huge cliffs. No matter how hard he tried, Sinbad couldn’t climb out of that cave. One day he managed to tie himself to the leg of a very large bird that visited the gorge. When the bird began to fly, it carried Sinbad also. Slowly, however, the dead weight of the sailor began to have its telling effect on the bird. It had to either get rid of the “hanger-on” or give up the idea of flying.

In a sense, Lot was the biblical Sinbad, for he tied his dead spiritual weight to his illustrious uncle and proved himself an even greater impediment to Abraham’s striving for G!d than the legendary sailor was to the flight of the huge bird.

Another defect in the character of Lot and similar folks is that they seem to resist learning and growing. Think of it! Abraham was a larger-than-life figure who guided an entire generation and who helped to shape the character of an entire people. Yet, he had little influence on the nephew whom he raised as a son. For whatever reason, some people resist growing up, and some people resist growing at all. This is Lot.

An illustration of that failure is Lot’s choice of neighbors and friends. When strife arose between Abraham’s herders and those of Lot, Abraham offered his nephew the choice of the land he wanted. Lot does not hesitate even a moment, or reflect upon how his choice might impact his uncle-cum-father. He immediately chose to settle on a very fertile and wealthy plot of land–and he does so despite the proximity to the highly corrupt and treacherous city of Sodom.[4] Lot was willing or unconcerned about exposing himself and his children to their maleficent influence, because of his greed for material possessions.

This was hinted at early in the portion, when the text, if you recall, told us that Abraham left Egypt with his wife, all of his possessions, וְל֥וֹט עִמּ֖וֹ–and Lot with him. Who is עִמּ֖וֹ, the “him” referring to here? Well, actually, the immediate antecedent is “all of the possessions.” By placing Lot not in the list of people in Abraham’s entourage but after the possessions, we find that Lot is more attached to the possibilities of hanging around Abraham and Sarah, more than he cares about them. He’s after their y’rusha, their wealth, their legacy.

It’s no wonder, then, that ingratitude marks his person. When Abraham and Lot parted company, and Abraham granted Lot’s choice of the best parcel of land in the entire region, Lot accepted it as a matter of course. Although he did nothing to earn it, he felt entitled to it, and did not offer a single word of thanks. Later, when Lot was kidnapped and taken captive, Abraham waged a fierce battle with the captors to liberate his kinsman.[5] Lot received his freedom passively and, again, did not utter a word of recognition or appreciation to his valorous and self-sacrificing uncle.

Now, you might say to me, “Rabbi, what’s the big deal! So, Lot was a youngish kid? All right. Immature? Sure. But a lot of this seems to be a matter of etiquette. It doesn’t pay, Rabbi, to get upset about such things!” But we just spent the High Holy Days thinking about all the building blocks of character, and how each time we did something that failed to recognize those in our lives, every time we didn’t follow through, or left someone holding our ball, we have done something wrong, and created an emotional wound, a spiritual hurt, that resides in others’ souls. Little things do matter. They accumulate and count heavily. As the Yiddish saying goes,

fun a bissel und a bissel

vert a fulle shissel,

“From a little and a little, the bowl gets filled.”

In 1869, the French amateur lepidopterist Etienne Leopold Trouvelot[6] imported to this country the spongy moth, in an attempt to hybridize a species of silk-producing moths. Several adult spongy moths escaped and unleashed havoc. From that small start of a few missing moths, millions of acres of the northeastern United States have been defoliated. Today the spongy moth problem is more widespread than ever, and causes some $868 million dollars of damage yearly.[7] “From a little and a little, the bowl gets filled.”

So let us beware of the little moths of greed, ingratitude, self-promotion, and deceit. They did a destructive job on Lot’s soul. His faults increased and multiplied, infecting his soul. In the end, he got plenty o’ som’in, sure, but he became plenty o’ nuttin. Gornisht, nothing, as we say in Yiddish.

Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox[8] wrote an astute rhyme that well describes the difference between Abraham and Lot, and the kinds of people they represent:

There are two kinds of people on earth today,

Two kinds of people no more I say.

Not the good or the bad, for it’s well understood,

The good are half bad, the bad are half good.

 

…Not the rich or the poor, for to count a man’s wealth,

You must know the state of his conscience and health.

 

…No! the two kinds of people on earth I mean,

Are the people who lift, the people who lean.

 

Wherever you go you’ll find the world’s masses

Are ever divided into these two classes.

And, strangely enough, you will find, too, I mean,

There is only one lifter to twenty who lean.

 

In which class are you? Are you easing the load

Of the overtaxed lifters who toiled down the road?

Or are you a leaner who lets others bear,

Your portion of worry and labor and care?”

 

Unfortunate, like the multiplying of the spongy moth, Lot seems to have spawned a multitude of like-minded persons, people who are learners and “hangers-on,” noch shleppers and parasites, who take and do not give anything in return, not even a word of gratitude or thanks.

What we need are Abraham’s and Porgy’s, people who stand for something, who lift for others, who give of themselves and take giant steps forward for the improvement, not only for those around them, but for the improvement of society and the benefit of all.

May we, too, be counted among their number.

Shabbat shalom.

[1] Born Jacob Gershwine, George Gershwin (1898-1937) was a pianist and composer who wrote jazz, popular, and classical compositions. His classical works include Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928); his jazz standards include “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm;” his popular songs include “Swanee” and “Fascinating Rhythm.”

[2] Genesis 12:4.

[3] Genesis 13:1.

[4] Genesis 13:7-12.

[5] Genesis 14:8-16.

[6] Etienne Leopold Trouvelot (1827-1895) was a French artist and astronomer. He published over 50 scientific papers and produced over 7,000 quality astronomical illustrations. Nevertheless, he is known today for the introduction of the spongy moth into the United States.

[7] To find out more about spongy moths, click here.

[8] Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) was an author and poet. Her work Poems of Passion and Solitude contains the memorable verse

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;

weep, and you weep alone.

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