VAYERA (Gen 18:1 - 22:24) 5766 (2005)


Out of a Parashah that has so many significant events, I'd like to focus on something modest - that is, the women in Lot's family.

Lot, his wife and two maidenly daughters are the only ones to survive the destruction of Sodom, the wicked city.  These four are a smaller version of Noah's family of eight who were the only ones to survive the destruction of the wicked world ten generations earlier.

The Torah tells us little about Lot's wife.  She and the others fleeing Sodom are told by the angel: "Don't look behind you."  Lot's wife looks back, and becomes a pillar of salt.

Why did Lot's wife look back?  What do you think...?  The commentators offer several ideas:

  1. Rashi suggests she wanted to see the punishment of others, and it is not proper for someone who is saved from a disaster to look at those less fortunate like a curious voyeur.  This is like the way people ogle traffic accidents.
  2. Another [Kli Yakar] suggests that Lot and his wife were troubled because of all the property they left behind that was being destroyed, and in looking back Lot's wife was indicating her attachment to material possessions.
  3. Others [Rashbam and Hizkuni] say that she wanted a last glimpse of her two married daughters, who stayed behind to remain with their Sodomite husbands.  This caring, human response is admired by Elie Wiesel, who says that at times one must look backward, lest one run the risk of turning into a statue not of stone, but of ice

Why is she punished?  Maybe for simply disobeying the order not to look back, or for voyeurism or materialism.  A feminist commentator [Judith Antonelli] suggests that merely watching the violent destruction of others is harmful and a form of self-punishment.

Elie Wiesel cites a Midrash that says she was punished not for looking back, but because she was part of the cycle of wickedness in Sodom.  This Midrash says: When the two angels arrived in Sodom, Lot asked his wife to set before them bread and salt.  She went to a neighbor to borrow salt, but foolishly betrayed the two guests by telling of their visit, which was then told to the wicked inhabitants who wanted to violate them.  Embodying her in the salt that she asked her neighbor for while betraying the guests is a punishment that fits her crime. 

The Torah tells us specifically to remember six things - the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai, Amalek, the Golden Calf, Miriam's challenge to Moses and the Sabbath Day.  And the big Jewish themes of Creation and Revelation harken back to the past, while Redemption is past and future.

Consider the angel's order "Don't look back" - do you see irony in that....?  In Judaism we are constantly looking back and remembering.  The holiday cycle is all about recalling and reliving and sanctifying our past. 

But perhaps there are some things toward which we should not look back, especially if looking back suggests a yearning to return there.  As Abraham left his native land, maybe Lot's wife was also supposed to move on from her native land of Sodom, and not yearn to return. 

Looking back can either sustain our most precious memories, or stifle and paralyze us.  It is a problem when we should be growing and evolving, but stay attached to parts that we need to leave behind.  Sometimes we need to shed a skin, or a job, or a spouse, or a home. The challenge is to know when to cast off the old rather than stay in a bad place forever.

Now let's briefly turn to Lot's two surviving daughters, nameless like Lot's wife.

We first meet them as passive objects, sacrificial virgins offered by Lot to pacify the wicked men of Sodom in place of the two men (who are angels) Lot is hosting at his home.  It has been suggested [by male commentators, including Elie Wiesel] that the two daughters actually agreed to let the Sodomites have their way with them because they were no longer young and had never known the mysterious joys of physical love.  I doubt any of us find this persuasive.

But it does seem that the daughters' desire to be intimately known by a man becomes irresistible after they escape.  They get their father Lot drunk, and then they have their way with him.  Their offspring become the Ammonites and the Moabites.

Whereas Lot's wife focused on the past, and perishes, the two daughters look toward the future, and survive.   Perhaps this is because their motive to repopulate the world is praiseworthy.

One can imagine the inspiration of this story as being to denigrate the foreign Ammonites and Moabites, by showing their incestuous roots.  But Moab does produce Ruth, ancestor of King David and the Messiah, and Ammon produces Naamah, who becomes Solomon's chief wife and mother of Rehoboam. 

Ruth is one of the most praised women in the Bible.  And "Naamah" means "pleasant" and she is praised in the Talmud [B. K. 38b] for her righteousness.           

And finally, let us end with the story of another daughter of Lot not directly revealed in the Torah but very present in a Midrash that tells us: Lot had a daughter named Palti or Paltoti - Yes, she is given a name.  She was very kind and brought food to a beggar in Sodom.  She had to do this under cover of night, for such generosity was forbidden in that wicked city.  She was found out, and sentenced to die.  In her last moments, she cried out to God - and that is what made God decide to come down from Heaven and pass final judgment on Sodom, because God heard her cry.  So she suffers, but not in vain - her suffering triggers the whole episode of Sodom and God's retribution against it.

So to sum up: Lot's wife lives for the past, his two surviving daughters live for the future even if that means incest - and Paltoti lives for the present.  Every day is a new opportunity for her to feed the beggar.  One of the daughters helps bring Messiah, but Paltoti immediately, directly affects God's acts.  Her voice is the one that God hears most forcefully.  

 

 

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