Lot and the Angels: Dichotomized Man
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
How does the conflicted man operate? What are his risks and justifications for his sinful leanings? As Rabbi Israel Chait taught, Torah differs from other philosophies by not only identifying wrong and proper ideas, but also by presenting role models of righteous individuals and also those with flaws. Role models surpass abstract lessons, as we are more impacted by practical philosophical applications of concrete steps and actions steering us away from evil and towards goodness and happiness. The story of Lot and the angels is one such role model presentation. The deeper psychological phenomena and dynamics are cloaked in subtle clues:
The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them and, bowing low with his face to the ground, he said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night, and bathe your feet; then you may be on your way early.” But they said, “No, we will spend the night in the square.” But he urged them strongly, so they turned his way and entered his house. He prepared a feast for them and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. They had not yet lain down, when the townspeople, the men of Sodom, young and old—all the people from everywhere—gathered about the house. And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.” So Lot went out to them to the entrance, shut the door behind him, and said, “I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they said, “Come here,” and one said, “You came here to dwell, and will you now judge [us]? Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” And they pressed hard against the person of Lot, and moved forward to break the door. But the men stretched out their hands and pulled Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And the people who were at the entrance of the house, young and old, they struck with blindness, so that they were helpless to find the entrance. (Gen. 19:1-11)
Following Maimonides’ understanding that Torah stories including angels must be understood in a non-literal sense [angels are not physical], I suggest the following interpretation. Further support for Maimonides’ view is found in the practically impossible sudden gathering of literally all Sodomites from all corners of Sodom (news does not spread that fast), their relentless search for Lot’s door even after they were blinded, and the very act of blinding the Sodomites. Furthermore, why did the angels initially reject Lot’s hospitality when they were there in Sodom to save him?
As Torah is written with complete precision and no redundancy, where every detail is intended as a lesson, we wonder about the focus on Lot’s “house,” “door,” “roof,” and “entrance.” Of what instruction are these details about Lot’s home? And this verse captures our attention: “You came here to dwell, and will you now judge [us]? Now we will deal worse with you than with them.”
It is my opinion that this event is a metaphor. Of course, Lot was literally saved and Sodom destroyed, as stated later: “Thus it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the plain and annihilated the cities where Lot dwelt, God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval” (Gen. 19:29). However, this highly detailed account of the angels, the Sodomites, Lot and his “home” is unnecessary, if we are only meant to learn of Lot’s salvation and Sodom’s destruction. What then do all these details teach?
I consider this entire story a parallel to Lot’s “personality.” Lot must “urge” the angels to enter his home means that Lot must “force” proper morality upon himself. The angels represent God’s truths. The angels’ reluctance to enter Lot’s home refer to Lot’s reluctance to incorporate complete justice into his life, as we see that Lot chose to live in Sodom, a corrupt society bent on extreme promiscuity. Lot was attracted to immorality. Nonetheless, Lot accepted some moral activity: providing hospitality. Why did Lot show any morality? This was due to his conflict: desiring immorality but learning knowledge of morality and kindness from Abraham. Lot’s solution was to assuage his guilt by performing some token act of kindness towards these angels. (We notice these angels were referred to as “men” in relation to Abraham. This is because as Abraham followed true justice, angels shared his level, as if they were his “fellow men.” But in relation to Lot, the angels were far above his low level, and therefore referred to as angels.) Further support for Lot’s resistance to act with full kindness was his meager “feast” (only dry matzos) while Abraham served the angels a lavish feast of meat, milk and cake, not meager matzos.
Suddenly after the angels entered, the mob surrounded Lot’s house—every citizen. As mentioned, this seems highly impractical, but metaphorically speaking, this means that as soon as Lot performed some proper act, his corrupt emotions—the Sodomites—immediately conflicted with his sense of justice so as to overtake any sense of justice (sodomizing the angels).
“So Lot went out to them to the entrance, shut the door behind him”
Why must we know about the “entrance,” and that he closed the “door”? Here is the key. This refers to Lot’s dichotomy. His guilt demanded that he retain some sense of justice, and closing the door meant that Lot wished to separate between his immoral feelings and his justice so as to preserve a self-image of a just person. This required a space—his home–that he kept off-limits to immorality. Lot felt justified that his own actions (in his home) were not corrupt. He could even tolerate giving his daughters to the Sodomites “outside,” since Lot himself was uninvolved in promiscuity. “If I don’t sin with my hands, I can maintain some semblance of a moral individual,” Lot felt. This also explains “but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.” Lot wished to preserve that his home remain untainted by moral decay. One’s home is where a person greatly identifies as “himself.” This is why we place a mezuzah on our homes, tefillin on our bodies and tzitzis on our clothes, as these are the three primary areas of identification. Tzaraas too attacks these three precise areas to teach the person that it was “he” who spoke Lashan Hara.
“You came here to dwell, and will you now judge [us]? Now we will deal worse with you than with them.”
Torah identifies Lot’s dichotomy and teaches a primary lesson: indecision corrupts. Lot moves to Sodom, yet he tells the Sodomites to restrain their sin, thereby straddling both sides of the fence. Therefore, he has not chosen any one lifestyle. A person who cannot choose is more susceptible to corruption as he has no firm grip on any philosophy. His mind is incapacitated. This uncommitted state allows him to accept any corrupt act for his choices are not rooted in any opinion. “You came here to dwell, and will you now judge [us]? Now we will deal worse with you than with them” is Torah’s method of communicating Lot’s precise flaw, and danger. Similarly we read, “Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him!” But the people answered him not a word” (I Kings 18:21). Elijah criticized the Jews for this same error. Astonishingly, Elijah said that following Baal alone would be preferable to following it together with following God. How so? He meant that at least when following Baal alone, one has made a decision, even though it is wrong. Choosing wrongly is preferable to no choice, for at least the mind is engaged, and then can be taught its error. But a disengaged mind cannot learn.
“And they pressed hard against the person of Lot, and moved forward to break the door”
Lot’s indecision caused his emotions to bear down on him to the point that he would become fully corrupted. His instincts were about to “break through the door,” to obliterate that small amount of good Lot attempted to keep preserved in his heart, “behind the door.”
“But the men stretched out their hands and pulled Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And the people who were at the entrance of the house, young and old, they struck with blindness, so that they were helpless to find the entrance.”
The men—angels–referring to absolute justice, cannot coexist with immorality, so they sent their hands alone outside the door. But they did not intermingle in the same area as the Sodomites. God saved Lot, expressed as the angels saving him. Lot could not save himself. Perhaps Lot’s salvation was not so much due to his level, but due to a stain on Abraham’s reputation. Had Abraham’s nephew Lot been destroyed, this would tarnish Abraham’s identity and success at spreading monotheism. Thus, we read “Thus it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the plain and annihilated the cities where Lot dwelt, God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval” (Gen. 19:29).
That the Sodomites still sought to enter Lot’s home after being stricken with blindness further supports this story as being a metaphor.
This story shares a lesson in psychology: how conflicted man is riddled with guilt and attempts to engage in immorality while retaining some sense of a just life. But such a compromise eventually fails. “God appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai, walk in My ways and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). Following God requires completeness; partial Torah adherence indicates a corruption and leads failure. It is also notable that this verse refers to God’s command of circumcision, a moderation of the sexual drive, in contrast to Lot’s philosophy of indulging it.