Rabbi Miriam's Blog
Rabbinic Fellow Dov Gottesfeld
This week’s Torah portion “Vayeira” consists of challenging topics for composing meaningful and educational Midrashim (Sermons). I chose to focus on the story of Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt, because I truly believe that she has been given a raw deal and is wrongly and badly treated by rabbis and commentators of past and present. They explained her bizarre death as a consequence of disobeying the angels’ “warning” - not to look back at Sodom and its inhabitants, while they were being incinerated by the wrath of God. Yet, as intelligent and learned men and women, it was obvious to those commentators that her punishment was over the top, and therefore they launched a campaign of character assassination which would deem her insignificant “crime” - of turning back her head - as merely a “third strike.”
It was obvious to them from the reading that Lot’s wife didn’t even have a speaking role in the Torah. She was not even mentioned until the end of the story when the angels hastened Lot to escape: "15. And as the dawn rose, the angels pressed Lot, saying, "Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you perish because of the iniquity of the city." The second and final time is the last line of the story: “26. And his wife looked from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” It is totally out of sync chronologically. By then, Lot and his family had already been in “Tzoar”, the city to which Lot had escaped, with the help of the angel, and the angel had some concerns: “22. Hasten, flee there, for I will not be able to do anything until you arrive there.” It was not even possible to see any details in Sodom from Tzoar.
I would say, because of what the Torah tells us occurred between Lot and his daughters afterwards, the Torah scribes were presented with a moral and ethical dilemma had Lot’s wife remained alive then. As the story goes, Lot and his daughters left Tzoar and moved to a cave up the mountain. Not having husbands any longer, the two daughters conspired to have children with their father. They achieved their goal by making their father drunk. Had their mother been there, it would have been impossible and too complicated for the scribes to make the scene work. The simple solution was to get rid of the mother. And they did.
If Lot’s wife, indeed, turned her head back, while escaping, as the going belief is, then she must be crowned as a heroine, first, for being in the rear. Fleeing from a dangerous situation always puts the last person in harm way. By doing so, she was protecting her daughters and her husband with her body. Turning her head was an act of being brave, not selfish. She was willing to sacrifice her life for them. Perhaps she wanted to see if her sons-in-law were rushing to catch up with them? Perhaps she wanted to see how far the falling brimstones and fire were from where they are?
And finally, salt in biblical times was considered a valuable commodity, because of its uses in foods and its preservation, and also as medicine. It was used in Jewish ceremonies as an offering element. “Metaphorically it signified performance, loyalty, durability, fidelity, usefulness, value, and purification.”(Wikipedia)
By turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, the scribes, in essence, turned her into a symbol bigger than life. She became an icon for Jews and Christians who keep looking around themselves and over their shoulders, until today, in search of that “Pillar of Salt” in the vast salty desert.
Ahavat Torah of West Los Angeles
About Rabbi Miriam
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell MHL, M.Ed., has served as our religious and spiritual leader at Ahavat Torah Congregation and helped it grow since it was founded in 2003.