Lot’s Wife (his wife) Graham Hesselberg
Vayeira: This week’s portion is alive with family dynamics, marital relationships, parent-child connections and sibling interaction. It is a rattling good account of the beginnings of our heritage.
But there is one part of the story that we rarely hear discussed in depth in Shul or during weekly shiurim, and if mentioned at all, it is often only mentioned to belittle or deride a person who in our narrative is has universally been seen as just ‘plain bad’.
Chapter 19 verse 26, the person being Lot’s wife.
‘His wife peered behind him and she became a pillar of salt.’
The verse can easily be broken up into three different elements to study.
We can discuss his wife, the action of turning and the resulting transformation to a pillar of salt.
These three parts have been combined or further broken down in varying ways over the years by a number of scholars and examined and studied, but never to the extent of the other themes and accounts in Vayeira.
There is much that the narratives of Torah don’t explain. This is where Midrash comes in. According to tradition the Torah was transcribed with black fire on white fire. Through Midrash, we explore the unstated, the white fire. We try to read between the words. But much of the concealed white fire of this verse remains a mystery.
What really was the essential nature of Lot’s wife’s transgression? Was it disobeying the command of the divine messengers? Was it merely looking back? Is there a suggestion of something more complex being involved? Why was the punishment specifically to be turned into a pillar of salt?
Other than this verse we know nothing directly about her. Her name is never stated. And whilst we all use the term ‘Lot’s wife’ when discussing this verse, in the Torah she does not even merit having such a title. She is only ever referred to as ‘his wife’. At first glance this might seem to push her even further into obscurity, but I would suggest that this in fact elevates her to a much higher level of importance by separating her from her husband.
Why is she even in the narrative? This unnamed women comes into play as rapidly as she evaporates. We are not supposed to be emotionally attached to her, or are we?
Surely she could have been left out? No. Nothing in the Torah could be or is left out. She cannot be hidden and this verse is as integral as any other. The white fire when revealed is not only intense but provides keys to understanding other events occurring in the Torah.
We process the narrative without thinking of this person as an individual. Without naming her, but wrongly entitling her Lot’s wife, we have automatically linked her to the traits of her husband.
Lot, Avraham’s nephew Lot, represents the pursuit for fertility, fruitfulness, richness, potency, beyond all else. It is the fertility of Egypt that attracts Lot, and that same attraction is what brings him to Sodom.
Perhaps this need even leads him to impregnate his daughters.
Lot’s wife acts as the cautionary opposite; she changes from fertile, connected to Lot, to the very essence of infertility, salt. Salt destroys the land’s fertility; it removes the capability for the land to support life. A fact we are all too aware of in many parts of the world today.
Was it this thirst for riches that allowed Lot to be rejected from his birthright? Remember Lot was Avraham’s nephew, he was the son of Haran, and his grandfather was Terach. Lot would have expected an inheritance and he would have expected to have one to pass on.
Perhaps though he did. His descendants, through the offspring with his daughters, the Moabites and the Ammonites, continue the lust for riches and acquire fertile and prosperous lands. Interestingly as a sideline much of this affluence was actually gained in the trade of salt. They also tried to corrupt the Jewish people towards uncontrolled hedonism.
But there is another inheritance? Not one of money, nor opulence. The inheritance given to the Jewish people, the shared inheritance left together with the unnamed wife?
The descendants of Lot were also the descendants of Lot’s wife. They were born to Lot’s daughters and to that end both Moab and Ben Ammi, had Lot’s wife as their grandmother.
The inheritance comes with Ruth (the Moabite) and Na’amah (the Ammonite), from each will come King David
Both Ruth and Na’amah are referred to in the Gemara as doves. And in many commentaries these two women symbolize the healing of Lot’s sin and his return to the Jewish people and the inheritance of Avraham.
I would suggest that these two women also represent the influence of Lot’s unnamed wife, perhaps her inner values, and her inner good.
This inheritance to us, the Jewish people, the inheritance from both Lot and from his wife, could not have transpired without verse 26. Without verse 26 Lot’s wife would have survived.
If Lot’s wife had survived would his daughters have dared to seduce their father? Would the Moabites or the Ammonites have come into existence? Would the line that leads us to David and then on, we pray, to the time of Moshiach, ever have come about?
Could it be that Lot’s wife actually sacrificed herself knowing it was Hashem’s wish that she never made it to that cave.
We learn that the people of Sodom do not have any portion in the world to come. Yet we are taught that Lot’s wife will stand as a pillar of salt until the time the dead are brought to life. She alone, from all the people of Sodom will be the only one resurrected from the dead at the time of Moshiach.
Here we can see Lot’s wife in a different light to the scorn and vilification usually thrown at her. Her legacy is as a good women, her inheritance is Moshiach, and her reward is to be the only native of Sodom to gain a portion in the world to come.
“She peered behind him, behind Lot as he was acting as a rear guard for his entire household who were hurrying to be saved.”
What was the wrongdoing in this?
The command given to leave, not to look behind nor linger anywhere in verse 18, is in the second person masculine singular, addressed grammatically only to one male, to Lot.
This command is emphasized by the fact that the trop used on the word lingered is a shal shelet only found four times in the Torah, characterized by a long and wavering elaboration: understandable when directed to Lot who has only ever shown his hesitancy and wavering to follow commands.
We could assume that she did not hear the command or did not internalize the meaning personally.
Her married daughters, her son in laws, perhaps her grandchildren (who though not mentioned one could surmise exist), her friends, her home, it all remains behind.
She is running away from her life with a husband who has never shown a love of kinship, who has put money, lust and perhaps pure self-preservation ahead of family.
Why then would she not turn back?
The transformation, the punishment.
So why would she be punished? This has been answered in many ways predominantly for acts committed before they left Sodom.
Other commentators imply that by looking back at the destruction Lot’s wife was contaminated by it. In the words of Sforno: ‘The evil will spread to you as if it were following you but will not harm you. However, if you stop to gaze [behind you], it will [overtake you] and stick to you.’
Or they imply that perhaps simply the reason she looked back was not motivated by goodness, and therefore the action alone merited the punishment. She looked back with condescension and arrogance upon the people of Sodom who were being destroyed while she was being saved. She could not resist enjoying their destruction and her accomplishment. Even though it was only her good fortune to be married to Avraham’s nephew that ensured her own escape.
Rashi attaches a kinder emphasis but the same meaning: “It is not fitting that you should witness their fate while you yourself are escaping.”
Was it then voyeurism that drove Lot’s wife to look back? Or was it her empathy for the degenerate people of Sodom?
The Torah does not answer this question. But it does open up a discussion on where the line stands between voyeurism and empathetic viewing.
In the age of ‘reality TV’ and social media, voyeurism has, sadly, in wider society become perfectly acceptable. Every day people are bombarded with images and sounds that convey pain, destruction, deprivation or immorality, often carried out by willing participants, and they become willing viewers wanting more and more.
As Jews, we teach the contrary lesson. We should always look with concern and compassion: we must know the heart of the stranger. The first step of knowing is looking into the eyes of another, panim el panim (face to face).
Was Lot’s wife’s motivation one of voyeurism or one based on concern, on compassion of a shared personal pain?
Was she the evil woman of popular belief, a voyeur, the embodiment of all that was bad in Sodom? Or could she no longer turn away from the pain and suffering, that is the inverse of what the commentators say, and had to look back, face to face?
I believe that only a person who did not symbolize the evil and greed of Sodom could be promised a portion in the world to come.
Her action, her tears, her fears, her free will, together perhaps with an awareness of Hashem’s plan for her daughters and their descendants: all this has to be understood before making any judgment.
We will never know the true motivation or the whole truth, but we do know our own personal speed to judge or our willingness to believe a story about another without hearing the true story.
For the depth of Chapter 19 verse 26, for the lessons we can learn from it, for the part it plays in the coming of Moshiach, I find these 6 words truly meaningful, and worthy of more study.
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