Turning into Salt

25 Oct

I just don’t get it.   

As Lot and his family (some of them) fled their homes just before the cities of Sodom and Amorah were to be destroyed, one of their guardian angels tells Lot that what ever he does, he is not to look back at the destruction.   

Lot’s wife looks anyway. 

Lot’s wife looked back and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt. (Gen. 19:26) 

Why was this crime punishable by death?

Why a pillar of salt and not just a lightning bolt or some other method?  

According to Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (1093-1167), the text is misunderstood.  

Yes. Lot’s wife did look back, but no – she was not turned into a pillar of salt, but rather, the verse reads: 

Lot’s wife looked back, and she – that is, the land – had become a pillar of salt.  

And this makes a lot of sense, fitting well with the verse in Deuteronomy (29:22), in the context of Moses’ prophecies regarding Land of Israel post-exile:  

….all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it, just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zevoiim, which the Lord overthrew in His fierce anger… 

I have to say that I admire the ibn Ezra.  Despite the usual understanding of the verse and the midrashim that back up the usual understanding, ibn Ezra took a different path of understanding, one that just simply made more sense….as I asked earlier, why so bizarre a punishment for such a transgression – especially given the circumstances that this woman had grown up her whole life in Sodom, and that her two eldest daughters and their husbands and families were being incinerated in the flames….who could blame her for looking back! And what kind of God (or angels of God) would have her transformed into a pillar of salt – whatever that entails – for desperately searching for signs of her family or friends left behind!  

Ramban explains that she looked and saw the Divine Presence – and that that killed her.  But why the salt?   

A midrash says that she was stingy with salt when it came to guests, so she was punished measure for measure.  

But let’s put these explanations aside for a moment because they are all trying to explain this difficult passage assuming it meant that she actually did turn into a pile of sodium….if we instead choose to follow the approach of ibn Ezra, where might that lead us? 

I have been thinking about it a lot this week, and here is where I find myself at this moment – (and as always, I am open to suggestions) 

My son, Yoni, is with his senior class at this time, confronting the destruction which came to be known as “The Holocaust.”  They are doing a lot of looking back.  Looking back can be a very positive thing to do.  It can teach lessons, it can provide us with heroic stories to inspire us, it can serve as a reminder of what is most important –  However, looking backward is only productive when its purpose is to direct us in the steps we are taking forward. The problem is that without purpose or direction, looking backward is stifling. 

The time had come for Sodom and Amora to go.  There was nothing there for Lot and his family – they needed to move on.  The angel therefore instructs Lot that there can be no looking back, they must climb the mountain and get as far away as possible from Sodom and all that it stood for.  That’s because Lot is shortsighted.  He went to Sodom in the first place for economic reasons, good grazing, lots of dollars to be made…he didn’t take notice or consider for a moment if this was a good place to raise a family.  In fact, it seems pretty clear that his whole value system became warped as he offered his two daughters “who had never been with men” to the raucous crowd surrounding his house.  

And where was the wife of Lot until now?  Look back in the text, as she is nowhere to be found.  She has said nothing and done nothing noteworthy.  In fact, while at the beginning of the parasha we see Avraham and Sarah working together as a team to hastily make food for their guests, when the guests come to Lot’s home in Sodom, it is he alone preparing and offering the food.  His wife is not in the picture. She is a true-blooded Sodomite! 

Therefore, I suggest the story goes like this. 

As they are being whisked out of the meltdown in Sodom, the angel tells Lot and only Lot that he must not look back; that is, the time has come for him to completely separate from his life in Sodom.  It will be difficult, but everything must go.  And although his wife will be spared, he cannot continue with her.  She is bad, bad news. 

She, on the other hand, is not instructed to refrain from looking back; that is, to make a clean break – she is from Sodom and it is beyond expectation that she make the change.  Lot grew up in the house Avraham; he knows better.  She will of course look back, she will look back her entire life – but Lot must use this chance to leave her, and to try to salvage his life. It is not because she became a pillar of salt that she no longer appears in the parasha after the pillar of salt verse – it is because Lot did as the angels instructed…he did not “look back” – he left her.  He needed to take that step, he needed to accept the realization that this would be his first step in remaking his life. 

Unfortunately, his daughters still carried on the corruption.  They got their father drunk and took advantage of him for their own selfish purposes, giving birth to the leaders of less than exemplary nations. 

Yesterday, the State of Israel marked the twelfth anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. The entire day was marked by ceremonies and memorials.  What are we meant to accomplish through “looking back” at such a horrible historical moment? There was much talk about perpetuating Rabin’s dream for peace.  There was much talk about making sure that his assassin never sees the outside of his prison walls – even to attend the brit of his soon to be born child.….of course, both of these issues create controversy and no doubt that’s why they make it to the news. 

Unfortunately, there was very little talk about what we as a nation should be doing to help ensure that such an unspeakable event never repeats itself. 

It seems to me that when we dedicate this day every year to looking back on that black day, it needs to be a day of introspection and resolve to narrow the gaps in society that have only become more pronounced in the last 12 years…..         


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