What was the essence of Lot's wife's transgression in Parashat Vayeira? Was it disobeying the instruction of the divine messengers? Was it simply looking back? Does the text suggest that something more complex is involved? Why was it her specific punishment to be turned into a pillar of salt? We invite you to consider these questions as you read and study the texts that follow.
As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Zoar, the Eternal rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire [brimstone and fire] from the Eternal out of heaven?. Lot's wife looked back [literally, "from behind him"], and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt. - Genesis 19:23-24, 26
- Where were Lot and his wife in relation to each other when she looked back?
- To what does the phrase "from behind him" refer?
We begin our study with a text from the Zohar, a mystical, thirteenth-century Spanish commentary:
"But his wife looked back from behind him." We should have expected "from behind her." What this text really means is, "from behind the Sh'chinah" (the immanent Presence of God). Thus when "his wife looked back from behind him," she turned her face to the destroying angel, and, as a result, she became a pillar of salt. For as long as the destroying angel does not see the face of a person, he does not harm that individual; but as soon as Lot's wife turned her face to look at him, she became a pillar of salt.
An eighth-century midrash from Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer states: The angels said to them, "Do not look behind you since the Divine Presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, has descended to rain brimstone and fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah."
- What do this midrash and the Zohar both suggest that the text is concerned with prohibiting (rather than prohibiting Lot and his wife and family from looking at the destruction per se)?
- How does this inform your evaluation of Lot's wife's action and her punishment?
- Based on the teaching of the Zohar, how can the Sh'chinah be a form of protection for us?
"Do not look behind you: You sinned with them but you are saved through the merit of Abraham." Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak] 1040-1105, France
- To what sin is Rashi referring? Who sinned? Lot? Lot's wife? Both of them?
"Lot's wife looked back [from behind him], and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt." In Genesis Rabbah R. Isaac said: "She sinned through salt. On the night that the angels visited Lot, Lot said to his wife, 'Give these guests a bit of salt.' But she replied, '[Besides entertaining guests], is it your wish to introduce into Sodom another vile custom [that of seasoning their food]?' What did she do? She went around among all her neighbors, saying to each one, 'Give me salt. We have guests,' intending thereby to have the townspeople become aware of the presence of guests in her home [and penalize Lot for it]. Hence, she herself became a pillar of salt."
-As cited in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Bialik and Ravnitzky
- How does Genesis Rabbah understand Rashi's comment that they both sinned?
- Was Lot's sin that he was hospitable? Why was Lot's wife wrong for informing the neighbors?
- How does this "punishment fit the crime"?
At the time of this writing in 2000, Michael Torop was the associate rabbi and director of education at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY.