Abraham and Lot – Adonai: My Lord
What is God?
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There is still another image in Genesis, though one would be hard pressed to find it, especially when reading in translation. This image comes up only rarely and usually in conjunction with name Hashem. Consequently, it is hardly noticeable. Orthodox Jews, in fact, almost invariably translate this name as Hashem, so the difference between it and Hashem is always masked. Non-Jewish translations may make a difference, but all too often they translate both this name and Hashem as ‘The Lord’. This name is the word Adonai, and it means ‘my Lord’. It is easy to see how the two names are so confused, since the common translations of both contain the word ‘Lord’. The Jews, in fact, pronounce the name Hashem with this word, adding to the misconception that they are really the same image.
This name, like Elohim, is not really a formal name. Adonai is actually more of a title, or a way to address God. In fact, the same word is frequently used in the Bible to address people of respect in a manner befitting their status. We shall be referring to this name/title by its English translation, ‘My Lord’, even though that translation hardly renders it a name at all. It is not easy to decipher the image created by this quasi-name, since it is both rare and unclear.
Adonai as a stand alone name only occurs a few times in the entire Bible. There is one section of the Torah in which this occurs several times. This is the puzzling story in which Abraham, upon hearing Hashem tell him that the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah may need to be destroyed because of the evil of their inhabitants, begs for them to be spared. Hashem informs Abraham of this because he ‘commands his children and household after him and they keep the way of Hashem to do righteousness and justice’ (18:19).
Abraham insists that there may be 50 worthy people living there and it would be ‘sacrilegious for You to do this thing, to kill the righteous with the evil’ (18:25). Hashem agrees not to destroy the place if 50 righteous are found there. Abraham then lowers the ante and says, ‘I have begun to speak to my Lord, and I am dust and ashes. Perhaps five righteous people will be lacking, will You destroy the entire city because of five people?’ (18:27). Hashem agrees to this also. Abraham keeps lowering the number and Hashem keeps agreeing to spare the towns if that amount is found. In the end, Abraham bargains Hashem down to a minimum of 10 righteous people and the negotiations abruptly stop for no apparent reason.
During the actual story of the destruction of Sodom even this minimal number is not found. In fact, it appears only one person may have qualified and even he was borderline. This was Abraham’s nephew, Lot who had been living there for some time. Two messengers stride into town and he invites them inside his home, which incites the wrath of the townspeople. At this point, the messengers announce that they are really angels of destruction who have been sent by Hashem to destroy the towns. They press Lot to grab his family and get out before the destruction begins. He and his daughters find refuge in a mountain cave. In this cave his daughters incongruously manage to get him drunk in order to commit incest with him on successive nights.
Throughout the story of the destruction, Abraham only comes up once. As the destruction gets underway Abraham looks out from ‘the place where he stood with Hashem’ (19:27), and witnesses the devastation. A key line in the text reads: ‘And as Elohim destroyed the cities on the plain, Elohim remembered Abraham, and He sent Lot from the midst of the upheaval…’ (19:29). A central question must be asked at this point: what was Abraham’s role in mitigating the destruction? It appears that although he was successful in his bargaining, in the end the cities were not spared. But it also seems that it was only because Elohim remembered Abraham that Lot was spared. What did he do to enable Lot to escape? Another important issue is why Abraham always addresses Hashem with the ‘my Lord’ title (he does this 4 times in his bargaining session). What is the function of this title and what image does it evoke?
For the record, this episode happens to be one of the most perplexing sections of Genesis. Just to fathom a human being of flesh and blood having the chutzpah to haggle with God is mind boggling. What is Abraham really up to here? Does he really think that Hashem, the God he worships who is the basis of his own morality, would overlook the presence of the righteous and just carpet bomb the place? Furthermore, if he is so worried about a bunch of righteous people becoming collateral damage, why does he stop at 10? Why not go down to 5, or 3, or even 1? Finally, why was Lot saved? Abraham didn’t ask for any favors for his nephew, so why was he given differential treatment? Was he so righteous that even Abraham’s minimal limit didn’t apply to him?
Perhaps this entire bizarre story was meant as an exercise in prayer – specifically in teaching Abraham what to pray for and how to pray. Hashem had His divine plans made up depending on the situation on the ground in Sodom. Abraham’s efforts really had no effect at all except to establish the parameters of prayer. There are situations in life that require intercession. When such situations come up we human beings must intercede with God, even if only to mollify our own conscience. We have to put out the effort to make sure God does things the way that we understand God is supposed to do things. It is part of the mechanics of the God-person relationship. If we are indifferent, if we really couldn’t care less about some needless deaths or some other heartbreaking situation, God may just set things on autopilot and let the cards fall where they may. This was Abraham’s agenda here. He knew it and Hashem knew it, and he knew that Hashem knew it.
With this in mind, almost everything falls into place. Abraham was on a prayer mission. This whole scene is a manual for prayer. The relationship is one of Lord to servant. God must be approached as ‘my Lord’, not because God needs the accolades, but because we need to sense the awesome gap that exists between man and God. We need to know this, to feel it, and to revere it, for that is how we begin to appreciate the awesome gift of life and existence. Only God can make existence happen and our greatest challenge is to not take it for granted. This is why Hashem is addressed as Adonai, ‘my Lord’. This is why Abraham approaches Hashem as ‘dust and ashes’, for that is what is he in comparison to the supreme holiness of God. This is the next image of God, the image of the awesome ‘Lord’.
What was Lot’s part in all this? Did he deserve to be saved? No, and yes. On his own the answer is probably no. But he was following Abraham’s example of inviting unwanted guests in and sheltering them. Then he dillydallied at a time that called for action. The Torah states clearly that it was only ‘with the mercy of Hashem’ (19:16) that he was saved. But something intervened to save him. What was it?
It was Abraham. Even though Lot was not the object of Abraham’s prayers, it was somehow through Abraham’s role in destiny that Lot was spared. But what did Abraham do to affect this change of destiny. He bargained, he pleaded, he beseeched, and then he stopped. Why didn’t he go all the way down to 1? Why did he stop when he was on such a roll and Hashem was acquiescing to everything? The answer, perhaps, is that at some point, a person, no matter how much he or she wants to pray to change things, has to accept. Taking it to the limit is fine as long as there is a limit. Despite the image of God that lies within us, we are not God. We are the servants and God is the ‘Lord’. Abraham was able to accept this and he stopped his beseeching. He accepted that ultimately things are going to happen in the way that they are going to happen. He understood that part of praying in order to communicate one’s deepest desires to God, is acceptance of whatever it is that God does. Acceptance, after fervent prayer, is an achievement of Abrahamic proportions.
Lot’s part in Abraham’s destiny could materialize only because Abraham accepted the divine justice of the destruction. Acceptance that God is ‘Lord’ has a palpable effect. It enables destiny to play out in the way that God intended, even if the actors in that destiny are reluctant to play their part. This appears to be a somewhat ironic effect of complete prayer. By pleading and beseeching to intervene in destiny, and then accepting destiny as whatever it will be, one can actually play a part in forging destiny. Recognizing Hashem as Lord, approaching Hashem as Lord, and accepting Hashem as Lord, is the complete process of prayer to Hashem.
Perceiving the Image
Perhaps we all need a few lessons in genuine prayer. God is not a holy Santa Claus whose main job is to bring us presents through the chimney. God is found inside us, in our most personal and sublime depths, waiting for us to approach and recognize the divine reality as the highest aspiration of the human mind and soul. God patiently waits for our beseeching, knowing that it is through profound and sincere prayer that we can touch God on our own just as God touches us. Prayer is the path to elevating the self, to scaling its highest pinnacles and reaching even higher. It is also an opportunity to understand our role in existence - we are needed to act, to activate, and to beseech. But we also must understand that in the end, all our beseeching is only a means to an end. The end is to come to terms with God, to accept that we are the creations and God is the Creator.
Acceptance is the key to perceiving this image of God. The image of Adonai, the Lord, only becomes apparent when one is able to accept things as they are regardless of one’s opinion of how they should be. Sometimes we simply have to look out at the world, or our own little corner of the world, and see it for what it is and recognize that this is the way that it has to be. This may sound a little passive and may even smack of fatalism. In that regard, it goes directly against the pro-active, ‘we can change the world’ attitude that is so admired in modern society. This is the main reason why this image is no longer very much in fashion. But there is something to be said for this image. All the pro-active intervention on our part frequently doesn’t do a thing to change the situation. Sometimes it may be psychologically and spiritually healthy to shift gears from drive into neutral and let God take the wheel. It won’t necessarily do anything to change the overall situation, but it sure can work wonders on the emotions and the spirit.
This image is the face of Adonai, my Lord. It is an image that really reflects the familiar image of Hashem, the personal God who touches us with a divine personality. This other image shows another side to that personality. It is God wearing the ‘Lord’ clothing, reminding us who really calls the shots, but who also wants to hear our opinion. Prayer is beseeching the ‘Lord’, and accepting the results. But it is also reaching in and discovering the holiness that lies within us all and becoming a part of it.
At the end of the day, we are unquestionably steadily drifting away from this image. How is one supposed to genuinely access this image in the face of a world that rejects it and no longer considers it to be particularly holy or worth looking up to?
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