Why did Lot’s wife look back to see the destruction of Sodom?
Table for Five: Vayera
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And his wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. – Gen. 19:6
Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles
Lot and family exit Sodom with an angelic escort. Couldn’t Lot just be instructed to, “grab your family; flee for your life!!!”? Why the angel?
Compounding this question, our sages share that this angel was the very same one who’d come to heal Abraham. Axiomatic to our Sages is “one angel doesn’t have two missions.” Each angel is capable of just one sort of action; meaning that whatever this angel did for Abraham he was apparently doing for Lot and family. The saintly Shem Mishmuel explains that in fact, Lot leaving Sodom was a healing. When one is ill, the body heals by ridding itself of that which is unhealthy to it. Sodom was a place packed with such immoral ideals and philosophies, it stood against kindness and charity.
Rashi teaches us that Mrs. Lot displayed these wicked behaviors by asking neighbors for some salt, explaining that “she had guests,” when she knew full well that this would provoke outrage in a city opposed to handouts of any kind. She ultimately became that, unable to leave it behind. Leaving a lifestyle and society of falsehood is quite hard. It requires the same sort of divine assistance that would be needed to survive a life-threatening disease. The same angel’s help is enlisted. Even looking back longingly has the capacity to turn attitudes and beliefs back from what is true into a pillar of salt. Don’t just be a product of your milieu, follow God’s angel! Break out and never look back!
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org
Being turned into a pillar of salt attracts a lot of attention. Many people may not know much else about the Torah or its stories, but they have probably heard about Lot’s wife’s salty ending. Whether they believe such an account is another story, especially when they have a difficult time accepting that the Torah was dictated by God Himself to Moses.
But it should be interesting to know that Josephus, the Roman historian wrote in Antiquities of the Jews: “But Lot’s wife continually turning back to view the city as she went from it, and being too nicely inquisitive what would become of it, although God had forbidden her so to do, was changed into a pillar of salt; for I have seen it, and it remains at this day.”
The amazing thing is how Josephus, who lived around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, wrote about Torah events as fact. His words were translated, not mocked, by the 17th-century mathematician William Whiston, the prime student of Sir Issac Newton, one of the greatest minds during the “Age of Reason.” Footnotes were added not to discredit Josephus, but to explain what he said. Rashi says that her punishment was to become a pillar of salt because she wanted to refuse salt to her guests back in Sodom. But maybe it was also a way of “preserving” the story, as salt does so that it could last well past any other Biblical artifacts. Something to think about.
Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, Judaic Studies, Shalhevet HS
The transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt is indeed perplexing. While some commentators explain the end of the verse to refer to the land or the city not to Lot’s wife, we will follow the majority of commentaries that do.
If so, what significance can this episode have for us? Why such a strange punishment for turning back and gazing at Sodom’s destruction? What was her motive in looking back when the messengers warned them all not to turn back with her eyes? Our commentators posit a number of possibilities. Some say that she looked back because of her lack of faith. She simply did not believe that such an event would occur. Others explain since she herself was not worthy of being saved, she should not be privy to the destruction of her compatriots. The Midrash (Pirkei D’R. Eliezer Chap.25 ) states that her end comes as a result of gazing upon the Shechina, the Divine, as it descended on Sodom for its destruction. Pirkei Avot (2:9) teaches about possessing an EIN TOVA, a “good eye”, the ability to have a moral-ethical eye, using one vision with clarity, to know why we stare at certain things. An eye that will see our faults, not the faults of others, that will not lead to greed or jealousy, but to harmony. An eye that looks inwards more than outwards, an eye that will benefit humanity and make the world a better place.
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Multi-Faith Chaplain, Spiritual Care Guide, Kaiser Panorama City
Sefer Breishit is a story of movements, physical and spiritual, and of leaving things behind. Adam and Hava are exiled from paradise — their womb of comforts. Our forefather Avram vacates the land of his progenitors, abandoning his ancestry. We extol his allegiance to God. Even Hashem scraps the first created world, to restart the human enterprise for better and for worse.
What is the folly of Lot’s wife? Conceivably she is hardened by what could’ve been rather than being heartened by what might yet be. Many a rabbinic sage has offered that while she merited protection by virtue of her husband Lot, she nonetheless remained frozen in the transgressions of S’dom. We often find that rigid behaviors and unbending paths of old no longer suit us. We grow up, collectively and as individuals, accumulating oddball calluses. Among mine is a lacerating impatience. Unforgiving and fussy to a fault, I impose this awfulness upon those I love and trust. Along our journeys, we must decide what brackish ballast we will continue to carry, what will burden us to our graves, together with what to toss, leaving no monument.
Judging what to keep is a sacred skill, not unlike editing an essay. Possessive of every phrase I type; if I do not pare to what is essential, this tract would far exceed the requisite 250 words! Therefore, like Avraham Avinu, let us embrace a bold unknown. May we not be encrusted by yesterday’s regrets, ossified by old brawls nor crystallized in wrongheadedness
Yehudit Garmaise, Reporter and parsha teacher
Just weeks after Hamas’s Oct. 7 atrocities, in the parsha, Hashem destroys Sodom on account of its cruelties.
“The Torah’s instructions on how to destroy Amalek are two-fold,” explained Rabbanit Sally Mayer, the rosh midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum, where two of my daughters are learning in Jerusalem. “We have to fight Hamas, and that is what our brave soldiers are doing,” Rabbanit Sally taught. “We must daven for those who are suffering, the hostages, and for our soldiers. But also: we have to practice the exact opposite of what Amelek does, which is to attack the weak, the vulnerable, and the helpless. What we are going to do is to help people: especially those who are hurting so much right now. We are going to add light to the world by volunteering in every beautiful way. To show we can help people who are in darkness, to provide comfort to those who are hurting.”
While spending many hours each day cooking, baking, and babysitting for the many women in their neighborhood whose husbands have been called to serve in the IDF, my daughters and their classmates have noted, “In Israel, people don’t talk about chesed, they just do it.”
Unlike Lot’s wife, who was punished for ruefully turning her face toward evil and focusing on the negative, let’s redouble our efforts to practice chesed, speak only loshon tov, and create more shalom in our lives. Let’s show the world what am Yisrael is about: and not look back.
Image: Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
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