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Parashat Vayeira

October 30, 2015

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz
Look back and die!
Such is the fate of Lot’s wife in Parashat Vayeira.

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS EARLIER: Lot has been living in Sodom, city of sin destined for destruction by God. On the eve of destruction, angels come knocking on his door, for the purpose of warning him to flee. He invites them in, feeds them, and then tries to protect them when the townsmen demand that he turn his guests over to them for their sexual sport. Lot offers up his two unmarried daughters in exchange for the guests’ safety; the angel-guests intervene just in time.

Next morning, Lot and his family heed the warning and depart Sodom, leaving behind their two married daughters. As Lot departs we read, “Vayitmamah” (“And he lingered”, Genesis 19:16). This word is chanted using shalshelet, an elaborate cantillation trope which occurs only three other times in the Torah. Shalshelet‘s duration is long and the tone waivers up and down; it acts as a kind of verbal word painting, musically illustrating Lot’s hesitation.

In the next verse Lot is told not to look back: “al tabit aharekha” (Genesis 19:17). Rashi tells us this is because he doesn’t deserve to see the punishment of the people of Sodom while he himself, hardly a paradigm of good behavior, is allowed to escape only by the merit of his uncle Abraham.

So he goes on to Zoar, after which God rains fire and brimstone on Sodom. As destruction falls over their former home, we read, “vatabeit ishto mei-aharav, vat’hi n’tziv melah“: “And his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” (Gen. 19:26)

Wait, what?

Hours earlier and nine verses ago, Lot was told not to look back, a commandment clearly written in second-person singular. What then is the meaning of this violent act against his wife? Interestingly, the cantillation used to describe this event is the most common trope pattern of merkha-tipcha etnahta, merkha-tipha sof pasuk. A pattern used repeatedly in the Torah, often the first one taught to students of cantillation. The verse is a juxtaposition of near-invisible presentation and highly dramatic content, daring us to take note.

Which we did. Genesis Rabbah 51:5 provides a midrashic justification for her fate: back in Sodom on that final evening, Lot had asked his wife to provide their guests with bread and salt. She goes to all her neighbors to borrow salt and tells them about the strangers in her home, thus betraying the presence of the guests. Her punishment fits her crime of betrayal, for “she sinned through salt.”

Modern interpretations tend to take a more favorable view of Lot’s wife. The modern midrash “The Revenge of Lot’s Wife” by Rabbi Jill Hammer from her book Sisters at Sinai, tells the story in her own voice as this living pillar of salt encounters a modern-day tourist. She recounts: at the moment of Sodom’s destruction she had whirled around and around in agony, torn between looking back to where her married daughters were left to die, and looking forward towards her future in exile. God finally took pity on her and transformed her into a pillar of salt, where she is to remain for eternity. (No further spoiler alerts, for the rest of the story is both humorous and compelling.)

In his book Wise Men and Their Tales, Elie Wiesel wrote, “May I publicly admit my sympathy for Mrs. Lot?” Wiesel refers to the ancient midrash about the salt, agreeing that her punishment resulted from her sin of betrayal; but he also recognizes her humanity in that moment of looking back, and urges us to do the same. Seeing the story of Sodom as a warning of what happens to a society that mistreats rather than caring for “the poor, the stranger, the refugee”, Wiesel declares “For at times one must look backward — lest one run the risk of turning into a statue. Of stone? No: of ice.”

In fact, our tradition repeatedly honors the act of looking back. We remember those who came before us through the tradition of yahrzeit. Our holidays are steeped in legendary history and lessons for our current lives. Most of all, the ongoing study of our ancient sacred texts is a pillar of our tradition. These remind us continually not to turn our backs on the destructive factors that are a part of our present world. The one-liner regarding Lot’s wife may indeed be a warning about heart, lest ours become ice.

Look back and die? Hardly. Look back, that we may act and live justly.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.