Associating with Evil

Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

There are many people who work for a company or business concern whose values they cannot conform with. For example, they may work for an advertising company which promotes cigarettes for juveniles even though they would intuitively prefer not to encourage people to smoke. Alternatively, they are employed by a company which plagiarizes other brand name products and sells cheap imitations, or they may have to devise technology whose only purpose is to assist the mass distribution of pornographic material. While many people will argue that their presence in such firms does not imply their identification with its values, they may suffer moral angst when confronted with the consequences of their company’s policies. Can these people be held responsible for their company’s decadent behavior? Will the company’s behavior have a detrimental effect on them as well?

An answer to these questions emerges from Parshat Lech Lecha, which deals at length with Avraham’s association with his nephew Lot. Lot is at first attracted to Avraham’s rejection of his forebears’ idolatrous practices, but later on he is blinded by dreams of material comforts and a life of pleasure without spiritual demands. Rabbi Zalman Sorotskin draws attention to the unusual phraseology at the beginning of the Parsha:

“Avraham went when G-d spoke to him, and Lot accompanied him; Avraham was seventy five years old when he left Charan”.

Avraham had not intended to take Lot along. He had received the Divine command to journey to Israel and intended to go alone. Lot, however, joined him, knowing that “Avraham was seventy five years old” and childless and Lot hoped to inherit Avraham’s wealth.( This is why Avraham’s age is mentioned at this juncture.) Avraham obviously discerned his nephew’s true intentions, but he hoped to groom Lot to be his true spiritual successor.

The watershed point at which Avraham realized that Lot would not succeed him is a seemingly minor incident. Avraham’s shepherds initiated a fight with Lot’s shepherds. Chazal explain that the fight was not merely over land rights, since as Avraham pointed out “all the land is before you”-there was room for everyone. However, Lot’s shepherds let their animals graze in all fields, while Avraham’s shepherds were careful to prevent any theft by their animals and only let them graze in open territory. Lot’s shepherds contended that the land had anyway been promised to Avraham and because Lot would eventually succeed him he should be able to graze his animals anywhere. Avraham’s shepherds saw this as theft, and in response to this, Avraham declared to his nephew:

“Please separate from me! If you go left, I will go right, and if you go right, I will go left”.

Avraham’s reaction appears to be radical and exaggerated. Instead of using quiet diplomacy to persuade Lot to rectify his moral standards, Avraham opts for a complete separation from his kinsman. Avraham must have felt a sense of total failure and bitter isolation upon seeing his star protegĂ© choosing to live in Sodom, which represented the antithesis of all that Avraham stood for. Why did Avraham send Lot away, and not try to influence him towards the correct path?

Moreover, Lot’s shepherds had a salient point: if the owners of these fields had really wanted to protect their fields from trespassing animals, they should have expressed their objections or built a fence around their fields. Indeed, this point is made by the sage Abaye, when he is sent by Rav Yosef to rebuke the shepherds of the Tarbu family for letting their goats graze in his fields. (Bava Kama 23b). Abaye’s response is that the shepherds will claim that Rav Yosef should have built a fence if he wanted to protect his fields. There are even authorities who uphold Abaye’s argument as halacha (see Rach, Bava Kama ibid). If Lot’s shepherds may have been justified in their arguments, why was Avraham so insistent on a complete separation from his nephew?

The Netsiv in his preface to Bereishit ponders why the forefathers are described as “honest” people (Bamidbar 23:10, see Avodah Zara 25). He explains that there were many righteous people in Jewish history who studied Torah but were not scrupulous in their dealings with others less pious than themselves. The forefathers, however, exhibited exemplary honesty and justness even when dealing with evil nations. We can glimpse Avraham’s sense of propriety from his impassioned plea to G-d to spare Sodom from destruction, even though he eschewed their way of life. Similarly, Avraham’s refusal to take anything from Sodom when he rescues its king in battle demonstrates his abhorrence of taking money for performing a good deed.(contrary to the prevailing norm at the time of “to the victor go the spoils”).

Avraham viewed himself as a leader and as a role model for all the other nations. At this moment he had no progeny of his own, and therefore hoped to leave behind him a powerful legacy of honesty and fairness. Thus he could not allow himself to be associated with even the slightest trace of deceitful behavior. Lot’s shepherds may have had a legal point, but in a country with so much available land there was no justification for grazing in other people’s fields. Avraham therefore separated from Lot in order to maintain his name and his personal values.

Correspondingly, every Jew has inherited Avraham’s legacy of integrity and therefore cannot allow himself to be besmirched by associating with corrupt and sinful practices. If however, he is not directly involved in anything deceitful but merely provides services for wicked people without having to endorse their actions, this could be compared to Avraham’s willingness to assist evil people when they genuinely needed his help. It would be advisable, however, to keep a low profile even in such situations, just as Avraham refused to accept any remuneration from Sodom, so that his money should not be associated with them. Ultimately he should endeavor to associate only with righteous people, as Shlomo Hamelech says “That you may walk in the ways of good men, and keep the paths of the righteous”.(Mishlei 2)

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).