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WHO AM I?

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

More than a month has passed since Yom Kippur when we all stood before G-d and promised that this year we would be different.

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More than a month has passed since Yom Kippur when we all stood before G-d and promised that this year we would be different. Some have successfully maintained a steadfast commitment to the resolutions made at that momentous time, and they have greeted the daily challenges born from that pursuit of improvement with excitement and determination. For others, the resolve has begun to slowly erode, and with each passing day they find themselves retreating step by step, struggling to maintain their ground. It is around this time of year that we might begin to question our true nature. Who is the real "me"? Deep down, am I the elevated spiritual soul of a month ago, filled with aspirations for growth and fulfillment of purpose; or am I just another physical entity who all too often succumbs to the daily temptations of this world?

This week's Torah portion describes the parting of ways between Abraham and his nephew Lot. Given the choice of which way to go, Lot lifts up his eyes and sees "the entire plain of the Jordan that it was well watered everywhere. . .like the garden of Hashem, like the land of Egypt, going toward Tzoar" (Genesis 13:10). Apparently captivated by its beauty and wealth, Lot decides to head in that direction, towards the cities of Sodom and Amorrah. After a simple reading of the text, we would conclude that Lot made his decision based on financial and aesthetic considerations. Yet, commenting on this verse, Rashi cites the Midrash that Lot chose this area specifically because the people of the area were "shtufei zimah - saturated with immoral behavior." Granted, the criterion of wealth referenced by the text is not the most noble of motivations, but it is certainly acceptable and understandable. However, from where in the text did the sages discern that Lot was motivated by a desire for immorality? Doesn't the verse explicitly submit a different motivation?

To answer this, and many other examples where the Midrash seems to impose on biblical figures considerations that aren't congruous with the text itself, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (a great Torah scholar and leader of the past generation) applies a fundamental psychological truth to the description of Lot provided by the Torah and the sages. He writes that just as the Torah must be understood on numerous levels, all of which are true at the same time, we must also recognize that an element of being human is that we are simultaneously motivated by numerous hidden interests and agendas. Many different feelings and considerations can be pushing us in any given direction, while only one of those thoughts might break through into our active consciousness.

Lot certainly thought, as the text suggests, that he favored the plains of Jordan because of its limitless economic promise. However, the sages understood that if Lot's inner motivations were in line with where they should have been, even the greatest financial enticements could not have torn him away from the wholesome environment of his uncle Abraham. Had Lot been spiritually healthy, he would have gladly exchanged the chance to become a millionaire in favor of remaining with Abraham. The sages therefore concluded that, deep down, something else motivated Lot; he was drawn towards the licentious atmosphere of Sodom. Indeed, the last chapter in the Torah's description of Lot is his revolting encounter with his daughters in the aftermath of Sodom's destruction.

This early struggle in the life of Lot vividly demonstrates how human beings are complicated creatures. A similar dichotomy of conflicting motivations pulling us in opposite directions may exist within each of us. Perhaps our greatest and most fundamental obligation - the first step towards any meaningful growth and accomplishment - is for us to be completely honest with ourselves so that we can discover what makes us tick. If our introspection on Yom Kippur is to have any lasting impact, we must take a concentrated look in the mirror to determine why we do what we do. Only by recognizing that, at the same time, I am both the person I seemed to be on Yom Kippur and the person I seem to be today, can we hope to make any meaningful changes in our lives.

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Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is a student at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.

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