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Vayera 2021

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

Our Torah portion this week, Vayera, includes the well-known story of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Near the end of that story, Lot’s wife watches the destruction and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Why? What did she do that caused her to turn into a pillar of salt? Like most women of the Torah, we know so little about her. Our sacred text doesn’t even give her a name. According to the early Rabbis, her name is “Idit,” meaning daffodil.[1] A daffodil is a simple flower, known for its vibrant yellow color. “Yellow” in slang refers to a person who is a coward. Did God perceive her being some kind of coward, by looking back at the city?

No, the Rabbis accuse her of much worse than simple cowardice. They claim that her actions were no different from those of the rest of Sodom’s populace. Jealous of others, she offered no hospitality to guests. The Rabbis suggest that she was so mean she even tried to bar the angels from entering the house.[2] They also assert that she divided their house into two parts and told her husband: “If you want to receive guests, do so in your part of the house, but not in mine.”[3]

Later commentators also blame Idit for her own destruction. Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir, who lived in France in the 11th century says that Idit was not punished, per se, but “looking back” means that she lingered too long and was overwhelmed by the heavenly fire that destroyed the city.

Shmuel Ben Meir’s grandfather, Rashi suggests it is not proper for someone who is saved from a disaster to see the punishment of others. Moshe Alshich, a 16th century Spanish Biblical commentator, suggests that those who were worthy to be saved should not look at God’s awesome power. To do so would be arrogant.

The Kli Yakar, another 16th century commentator – this time from Prague, suggests that Idit was troubled because of all the material possessions she left behind.

Many commentators touch on the theme of change: You never know where life is going to take you, so don’t get stuck in resisting change. “Move on.” If you linger, keep one foot in the past, or simply look back, harm will come your way. Idit failed to incorporate the message of last week’s Torah portion,Lekh L’kha, when God tells Abraham and Sarah to get up and go, and to have faith when you do so.

One modern commentator has written: “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 … therefore held back in her spiritual journey.”

This message of the story Lot’s wife was once stated quite succinctly by an 85-year-old woman: When you are always looking backwards, you become inorganic.”

I take no comfort from any of these interpretations. Who among us moves on without looking back? We may tell ourselves that we need to make a clean break with the past, but do we really mean it? It is true that often times we have to get out of a bad situation as quickly as possible, but we should not be condemned for taking longer than may be necessary or for dwelling on what or who we are leaving behind.

We bring our pasts with us, no matter where we go. Sometimes we carry scars or other physical reminders of where we have been; and we always carry the emotional reminders. Thomas Wolfe may have written that “You Can’t Go Home Again,” but you always take a piece of your home with you when you leave.

The past – what is behind us – brings us comfort because it is familiar. Even a painful past or a past with painful moments brings us comfort in an odd sort of way because it is OUR past. It defines us. It gives us an identity, it gives us a history, and it provides meaning for our lives. I am struck by how often an interviewer will ask, “What was it like growing up as the son of famous person X” or “How did you feel being the daughter of an alcoholic-drug addict, or whatever.” The person being interviewed usually responds with something like, “It felt normal. It was my life, the only life I ever knew. I would not know what it was like to grow up any other way.”

Jewish tradition demands us to remember – we remember the people who have died: four times a year we pray a yizkor memorial service.

Every year on the anniversary of our loved one’s death, we say their name and recite the Kaddish memorial prayer in their memory. But we remember past events as well: The Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the destruction of the Temple that stood in Jerusalem, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel.

Lot’s wife wasn’t turned to a pillar of salt for looking back in defiance of God. Lot’s wife, I believe, drowned in her own tears, remembering her past, the fate of her family, and the fate of her city. Overwhelmed with memories and losses, she cried copious tears. Lot and the two daughters who fled were too far in front to see or hear her distress. As she was swallowed up by her tears, all that remained was the salt.

Let us never condemn our friends and loved ones for lingering in the past. Let us never run too far ahead to hear or see the cries of distress of those who are plagued by past pains. Let us help them move forward while making sense of the past and bringing it along with them.

And most importantly, may we never let another person drown in his, her or their own tears.

Shabbat shalom.


[1]Tanhuma [ed. Buber], Vayera 8

[2]Num. Rabbah 10:5

[3]Gen. Rabbah 50:6

Tue, December 7 2021 3 Tevet 5782