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Parashat Vayera: You Can Take Her Out of Sodom by Yaakov Bieler

November 9, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

Lot’s wife meets an unpleasant end.

Just prior to the destruction of the cities Sodom and Amora (Beraishit 19:24-25), Lot, Avraham’s nephew (see 11:31), and at least a portion of his family[1] manage to escape. However, one member of the group that originally leaves Sodom, never reaches safety, and instead, becomes a perpetual monument[2] to the destruction that takes place in this once prosperous and fertile area.[3] Despite an explicit directive to Lot from one of the angels [4] for everyone in his family to run for their lives and not look back at what is befalling Sodom and Amora (19:17), Lot’s wife, Idit/Irit,[5] cannot resist taking one more look, and as a result, is turned into a pillar of salt (19:26).[6]

The symbolism of Mrs. Lot’s being encased in salt.

On a literal level, it can be maintained that since sulfur and salt are components of both the destruction and its aftermath,[7] for Mrs. Lot to end up being encased in at least one of these materials is hardly surprising.

Yet most traditional commentators understand her fate to constitute an embodiment of poetic justice, the Divine Symmetry of “Mida KeNeged Mida” (lit. a measure for a measure, i.e., one receives treatment in accordance with how one has conducted himself or paralleling what one has meted out to others).[8] RaShI on 19:26 references a theme that is recounted in ever-greater detail in several Midrashei Aggada (Midrash explicating the story- [as opposed to the legal-] portion of the Tora).

By salt she sinned, and by salt she was stricken.

He (Lot) said to her, “Give a little salt to these guests.”

She said to him, “Even this evil practice you have come to institute in this place?”

By citing this particular Midrashic account of why salt is chosen as the appropriate medium for Mrs. Lot’s punishment, RaShI implies that she was a native Sodomite, someone who regularly objected to what she perceived were her husband’s “dangerous, alien” practices of dealing kindly with those in need,[9] which he had obviously developed while in the company of Avraham whose model he was trying to emulate.[10] By looking back, she demonstrates that to the very end, she identifies more with those who die in Sodom than with her husband and their two daughters who end up escaping unscathed.

Identifying the basis for casting Mrs. Lot in such a negative light.

Imagining that Mrs. Lot would speak to her husband in such a blatantly unsympathetic manner regarding offering salt to Lot’s guests, may be fueled by 19:9, in which we learn what the Sodomites, intent upon wresting the three guests away from Lot’s protection, say regarding their host’s stalling tactics, “…One (Lot) comes to (merely) sojourn with us, and he presumes to judge us and our intentions…?” As a result, some of the Rabbis attempt to cast Lot into the role of a social reformer in Sodom, interpreting 19:1, i.e., Lot’s sitting in the gateway of the city, not that he was on the lookout for guests in the manner of Avraham, but rather that he had just been appointed a judge, based upon the assumption that the municipal court is usually located in the gateway of the city. Paralleling the critique placed in the mouth of Lot’s wife, from the comment in 19:9 it would appear that the native population was prepared to accept Lot, the outsider, only as long as he did not openly oppose their vices and perversions.

Attributing to Mrs. Lot’s turning into a pillar of salt to other, similar transgressions.

Instead of casting the issue of offering salt to guests as a point of contention between Lot and his wife, Beraishit Rabba 51:5, omits mention of such a conversation, and instead portrays “Idit/Irit”[11] as blatantly asking her neighbors for salt in order to indicate to them that guests had come into her house,  thereby holding  her directly responsible for the eventual attempt to rape the three guests that had accepted Lot’s offer of hospitality (19:4-5).

R. Yitzchak said: She sinned with salt. On the very night that the angels had come to Lot, what did she do? She went to all of her neighbors and said to them, “Give me some salt because we have guests.”  Her intent was to alert everyone to their presence.

Midrash Sechel Tov on Beraishit 19 suggests that among Sodomites, asking for salt was actually a previously-agreed-upon code indicating that visitors had come to the asker’s home and that an “invitation” was now being extended for others to come and harass the unsuspecting guests.

More prosaically, but echoing a similar theme, Rabbeinu Bachaye maintains that at least on one occasion, a mendicant had come to Mrs. Lot’s door requesting salt, and she refused to give him any, thereby identifying the medium for her eventual punishment.

A commentator’s alternative approaches to account for Mrs. Lot being turned into a pillar of salt.

At the beginning of RaMBaN’s commentary on 19:17, although not explaining why Mrs. Lot was turned into a pillar of salt, the medieval commentator contends that the reason for the instruction to Lot’s family not to turn back and watch Sodom and Amora’s destruction, is due to their not really deserving being saved in the first place. The Tora goes out of its way to state in 19:29, “And it was when HaShem Destroyed the cities of the valley, and HaShem Remembered AVRAHAM, and He Sent Lot from the midst of the destruction, when He Destroyed the cities in which Lot resided”, clearly indicating that Lot was saved by the merit of Avraham, rather than because of his own noble acts and spiritual nature.[12] Consequently, RaMBaN continues, for Lot and his family to watch from a distance the intense devastation in which they themselves deserved to be included, was deemed insensitive and inappropriate. While such an approach does not single out any particular sin committed on the part of any member of Lot’s family, including his wife, nevertheless they could be found guilty “by association”, i.e., the fact that the family continued to live in these environs, despite their recognition of how the members of this society conducted themselves, suggests that if Lot’s family wasn’t actively complicit in the criminality of the place, they apparently weren’t scandalized by such an environment either.

RaMBaN then proceeds to present  two other hypotheses regarding the prohibition against Lot’s family watching Sodom and Amora being destroyed, the first of which  accounts for why she was reduced to a mound of salt. On the one hand, the medieval commentator invokes the belief that if one sees, smells, or even thinks about forms of destruction, these sicknesses and even death will end up engulfing the onlooker. Consequently, when one watches everything else die upon being covered in salt, he becomes at risk for the same fate. While it would appear that RaMBaN understands such a process to operate metaphysically, we can appreciate the approach in psychological terms. When an individual watches terrible things take place, he can become scarred for life, and even lose the will to live on. While it may be important to recall what has happened to you and your people at regular intervals, to have to serve as a lifetime eye-witness to indescribable horrors may be more than an individual is able to withstand.

A third proposal by RaMBaN advances the extreme opposite idea that the danger posed by looking back at Sodom and Amora while they were being destroyed, had nothing to do with members of Lot’s family being sinful, but rather the scene was simply too holy for mere mortals to watch. Much like Moshe is told when he asks to be allowed to see God’s Essence, (33:20) “…‘You are unable to see My Face, because no human can see Me and live’”, so too to watch the Destroying Angel or even God’s Presence[13] engaged in carrying out this massive and brutal destruction, was not for human eyes to see, and should someone see what they were not authorized to, punishment would come swiftly and irreversibly.

An explanation for Mrs. Lot’s transformation based upon her humanity rather than some evil nature.

But the most poignant depiction of the catalyst for Mrs. Lot’s fatal looking back appears in Midrash Aggada (Bober) on Beraishit 19:26, as well as Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer #25.

After the angel said to her, “Do not look behind you” her soul was pained regarding her daughters that remained in Sodom.[14]

Irit, the wife of Lot, was overcome with compassion for her married daughters, and she looked behind her to see if they were or weren’t coming behind her, and she then saw the Back of the Divine Presence, and was turned into a pillar of salt.[15]

By shifting the emphasis concerning Lot’s wife, from her sinfulness due to a LACK of compassion for guests, wayfarers, and even her husband, to her EXCESSIVE compassion for two children that she feared she would never see again, an entirely different impression is left upon the reader regarding this woman. And realizing that both sides of the argument, i.e., those who say she was evil and those who are not ready to go that far, are basing themselves on no more than Rabbinic Aggadic texts, would seem to suggest that it is equally possible to view her either way, or perhaps both ways simultaneously. If she saw her offspring as projections of herself, then the same negative attitude towards strangers might make her devotion that much greater to “her own.” For the purpose of highlighting moral choices and preferred behavior, it is convenient to portray Biblical characters in “black-and-white” terms, when there is an incorporation of “real-life” experience with the Biblical texts, the tendency should be in the direction of recognizing and acknowledging the complexities rather than the simplicities of the major and minor personalities described in our Holy Scriptures. Is it as possible to say that Idit/Irit possessed both senses of compassion—none for guests and everything for children—simultaneously, as it is to say that both qualities cannot reside in the same person at the same time? So much of the Tora is devoted to external actions, rather than emotions or thoughts. While it is intriguing to speculate what someone like Mrs. Lot is thinking during the time that she appears in the Biblical narrative, to be able to conclude with any sort of certainly what sort of person she was, will always remain a mystery. What do you think?


[1] In Beraishit 19:14, the Tora relates how Lot warns his two sons-in-law about the impending destruction of the cities, obviously implying that in addition to the two daughters that were still living at home (see 19:8, 30 ff.), there were another two daughters married to Sodomite men. Lot’s sons-in-law took him for a madman and ignored his remonstrations. There is no mention that he even was able to discuss the matter with their wives. Either such a conversation never took place, or even if it did, whether the families stayed or left was determined by the husbands who did not take Lot’s warnings seriously.

[2] Berachot 54a-b lists eight places that when one visits them, a blessing should be offered to HaShem for having performed a miracle during the course of Jewish history. One of the eight is the pillar of salt which Lot’s wife becomes. Yalkut Shimoni BeShalach #256, based upon Tehillim 111:4 (“A commemoration He Makes for His Miracles), views Lot’s wife becoming a pillar of salt not so much as a punishment, but rather a means to precipitate recollections about what transpired in this place during this time.

[3] When Lot is given the choice by his uncle to pick a place so that he can take up residence away from Avraham’s encampment and avoid the conflicts that engendered ill-feeling between their shepherds (13:6-7), the Tora in 13:10 describes the area of Sodom and Amora as “completely fertile…like a garden of God, like the land of Egypt…” The Garden of Eden is certainly a paradigm for fertility, as is Egypt, the latter being regularly irrigated by the overflow of the Nile—see Devarim 11:10.

[4] Commentators point out that while three “guests” visit Avraham’s tent at the beginning of Parashat VaYera (18:2), only two proceed to Sodom (19:1). RaShI on 18:2, following the principle that every angel is assigned a specific task unique from those of his colleagues, lists the roles that each of the three original angels were appointed to fulfill: one to inform Sara of the impending birth of a son (18:10, 13-15) (this angel, once fulfilling his mission, does not continue on to Sodom since there is nothing comparable for him to accomplish there), one to destroy Sodom and Amora (19:24-25) and one to both heal Avraham following his circumcision, and to save Lot (19:17), with the understanding that healing and saving from death constitute a single rather than multiple functions. It would then further follow that the angel who instructs the refugees not to look back at the scene of destruction and devastation (19:17) is the same one who is charged with saving them, since looking back would endanger their ability to be saved.

[5] Various sources list Mrs. Lot’s name as either “Irit”—Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer Chapt. 25, Rabbeinu Bachaye on 19:17; or “Idit”—Yalkut Shimoni #84, Midrash Tanchuma Parshat VaYera #8.

[6] A less dramatic reading of the verse is offered by Bechor Shor who understands that Mrs. Lot was simply covered with salt as was the rest of the area to which sulfur and salt were indiginous—19:4 mentions sulfur, and Devarim 29:22 associates sulfur and salt as chemicals that will render a once fertile land infertile—rain down upon it. However, most commentators understand that at least at the outset, Mrs. Lot’s form could be discerned from among the vast area that had been covered with these chemicals.

[7] See fn. 5.

[8] Other examples of “Mida KeNeged Mida” include: RaMBaN on Beraishit 11:2; RaShI on Beraishit 28:9; RaMBaN on Shemot 6:13; RaShI on BaMidbar 14:37.

[9] The basis for the general cultural attitude of hostility to guests in Sodom, to which Mrs. Lot as well as the unruly mob surrounding her house, are apparently being faithful, is discussed in Sanhedrin 109a.

Our Rabbis taught: The people of Sodom waxed haughty only on account of the good which the Holy One, Blessed be He, had lavished upon them. What is written concerning them? (Iyov 28:5-8) “As for the earth, out of it comes bread, and under it, it is burned up as if it were fire. The stones of it are the place of sapphires, and it has dust of gold…” They say: Since bread comes forth out of our earth, and it has the dust of gold, why should we tolerate wayfarers, who come to us ONLY TO DEPLETE OUR WEALTH? Come, let us abolish the practice of traveling in our land, as it is written, (Iyov 28:4) “The flood breaks out from the inhabitants; they are forgotten of the foot, they are dried up, they have gone away from men.”

The Talmud goes on to illustrate how policies originally intended to discourage new immigrants or visitors attempting to avail themselves of Sodom’s comforts and wealth, eventually cause Sodomites to turn on one another, and erode the possibilities for even poor Sodomites, to receive financial assistance from those more wealthy. Not only would the natives not share with outsiders, but they would withhold help even from their fellow citizens, as reflected in the comment in Avot 5:10, “…A person who says, ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’…there are those who say that this is the policy prevalent in Sodom…”

[10] In many respects, Parashat VaYera provides us with a stark contrast between uncle Avraham  and nephew Lot and their respective wives, regarding the welcoming and entertaining of guests.

a.   18:2 Avraham is sitting in the doorway of his tent, and RUNS to meet his three visitors, bowing to them.

b.   Ibid., 3-5 Avraham insists upon their accepting his hospitality instead of carrying on with their journey, and IMMEDIATELY encourages them to wash themselves, cool off  in the shade, and have a small amount to eat, yet never actually invites them into his tent (is there implied a modesty issue, if Sara was within?).

c.     Ibid., 6-8 Avraham RUNS to ask SARA to bake CAKES and then RUNS to prepare CHOICE MEAT and other REFINED FOODS, additionally enlisting a YOUTH to assist. He also PERSONALLY serves them and makes sure that all of their needs are taken care of.

a`.   19:1 Lot too sits in the gateway of Sodom (= the doorway of a tent). But he   is   described as only RISING before his visitors, although he does bow down (as did Avraham).

b`.   Ibid., 2 Lot invites his guests first to come into his house, and only then to spend the night and wash. He suggests that they be on their way after rising early in the morning. In contrast to Avraham, Lot’s visitors initially refuse to accept his hospitality.

c`.    They finally agree to come into Lot’s abode. No mention is made of anyone other than Lot preparing and giving food to the visitors. Furthermore, there is a stark contrast between the cakes that Avraham ordered for his guests, as compared to Lot’s only making Matzot.

[11] Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer #25 identifies Mrs. Lot’s name as either Irit or Idit.

[12] Yalkut Shimoni Parshat VaYera #85 makes the case that at least Lot deserved to be saved on his own merit. The incident that is cited is when Avraham, fleeing to Egypt in the face of a famine that beset Egypt, originally represented Sara as his sister, Lot was silent and did not contradict the false representation made by his uncle and aunt. The compensation for this meritorious act was his being saved from the destruction of Sodom and Amora..

[13] See Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapt. 25.

[14] See fn. 1.

[15] This latter approach to understanding Mrs. Lot’s motivation for turning back to look is borne out by Berachot 54b, in which it is stated that the blessing that should be made when confronting the pillar of salt that once was Irit/Idit, is “Baruch Dayan HaEmet” (Blessed be He, the true Judge.) The concept of applying “Tzidduk HaDin” (justifying the judgment, however unpalatable it appears) to the final resting place of an evil woman would not be logical, leading to the conclusion that Lot’s wife was not to be viewed in this manner, at least according to this Talmudic passage in Berachot.

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