Vayera 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYera (Gen. 18:1-22:24)

OVERVIEW

Avraham is visited by angels who announce that Sarah will have a son; she doesn’t believe it. Avraham then argues with God about the justice of destroying the two sinful cites, Sdom and Amorah. A crowd in Sdom tries to force Lot, Abraham’s nephew, to surrender his guests; he escapes the ensuing destruction with his two daughters, who lay with their father when they think the whole world is destroyed. Sarah enters the household of the king of Gerar. Sarah does have a son, Yitzhak. God saves Hagar and Yishmael in the desert and makes a promise that Yishmael too will be a great nation. Finally, Avraham hears the call from God to take Yitzhak and offer him as a sacrifice; at the last minute, Avraham’s hand is stopped by an angel, and a ram is offered instead.

IN FOCUS

“His wife looked back, and became a pillar of salt.” (Genesis 19:26)

PSHAT

In the beginning of the chapter, the residents of Sdom commit a terrible outrage by demanding the right to molest Lot’s guests; these mysterious guests are apparently angels, but Lot doesn’t seem to know that. In an extremely problematic passage, he offers his daughters to the crowd in place of his guests. The angels warn Lot and his family to flee, for God is about to destroy the wicked city; they are warned not to look back upon the destruction, but Lot’s wife does, and is turned into the famous “pillar of salt.”

DRASH

The story of Lot and his family has many layers of meaning and interpretation; ultimately, it seems to be a tragedy for almost all concerned. Even though Avraham argued with God that there may be a few good people in the sinful city (ch. 18), one could argue that Sdom is almost a paradigm of the lawless, amoral society that the Torah abhors. Thus the story of its punishment may be the Torah’s way of expressing its utter disapproval of such a community.

On the other hand, the punishment of Lot’s wife seems totally disproportionate to the “crime,” as it were. For a moment, let’s take the story at face value; here we have a scene of complete chaos, with Lot and his wife and daughters fleeing for the hills in haste and panic- how can looking back be worthy of such a fate?

Nahum Sarna, in the JPS Torah Commentary, suggests that Lot’s wife was not punished, per se, but “looking back” means that she lingered too long and was overwhelmed by the heavenly fire. Although other classic sources like the Rashbam (a descendant of Rashi) say the same thing, this doesn’t make sense to me, because this was not a natural disaster, but an act of Divine Will. Again, taking the story at face value, it seems that if God is sending a special fire from heaven, God can choose whom it affects, just as God sent the plagues in Egypt to afflict only the Egyptians and not the Israelites. For example, compare this story to Exodus 9, where God sends a plague on the Egyptian cattle but not the Israelite cattle.

Other classic commentators understand the warning “do not look” in verse 17 in moral terms:

    Rashi suggests it is not proper for someone who is saved from the disaster to see the punishment of others

    Alshich suggests a variation on this, that those who were worthy to be saved should not look on God’s awesome power. I understand Alshich to be saying that to look directly on the great miracle would be a kind of impunity or arrogance.

    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 concern or attachment to these material possessions.

    Rashbam and Hizkuni also quote a midrash that Lot’s wife was looking back to check on her sons-in-law, who were still in Sdom. In verse 12, the crowd demands Lot’s sons-in-law, so maybe this midrash takes that as evidence that Lot had other daughters other than the ones who escaped with him. Presumably, these sons-in-law were part of the Sdomite crowd and the midrash doesn’t have any problem with including them in the fate of the rest of the city.

Although there are salt formations near the Dead Sea called “Lot’s wife,” I don’t think this fantastic story came down to us only to explain the names of geological sites. What all the traditional commentators pick up on is the idea that sometimes you have to get out of a bad situation as fast as you can- there is a time for reflection and a time for moving on. To me, this is the symbolic meaning of the “pillar of salt.” Salt, even in ancient days, was a preservative; something covered by salt was something that wasn’t going to change, something that was tough and lifeless.

In this reading, perhaps Lot’s wife is a symbol of someone who can’t let go of the past, someone who only reluctantly moves on from a previous phase of life, and is always therefore held back in her spiritual journey. This is not to say that remembrance and introspection aren’t very important at the right time; we might rather learn that remembrance and introspection can be paralyzing at the wrong time. Even someone who is growing and evolving can sometimes stay attached to parts of themselves that they need to leave behind. The challenge is to know when to do that, and when not get stuck in one place forever, like the tragic case of Lot’s wife.

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