Torah | Story of Lots wife can trigger empathy or an I told you so

Vayera

Genesis 18:1-22:24

II Kings 4:1-37

As a mom, I remember saying, “I told you so.” “You can’t have dessert if you don’t eat your vegetables.” And, “You can’t play with the American Girl doll if you don’t share your Pokemon cards.” “The picture will fall and break if you climb on the cabinet.” “You will spill your milk if you conduct an orchestra during dinner.” “You will be tired tomorrow if you stay up late tonight.”

“I told you so.”

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Like the travails of parenting young children, the Torah abounds with warnings given and consequences suffered. “But as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die” (Genesis 2). “If you refuse to let them go, then I will plague your whole country with frogs” (Exodus 8). This week’s Torah portion tells us, “When the angels brought residents of Sodom outside the city, one of the angels said, ‘Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away. . .’ But Lot’s wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt” (Gen. 19:17). She was swept away, transformed into salt, unable to escape.

The traditional commentaries on these verses seem to say, “I told you so.” The Talmud says that the transformation of Lot’s wife was a punishment. For Lot and his wife, two blessings are said. For his wife we say, “Blessed be the true Judge,” and for Lot we say, “Blessed be He who remembers the righteous” (Babylonian Talmud Masekhet Brakhot 54b).

Rashi, the great medieval French commentary suggests, “By salt she had sinned and by salt was she punished. What was her sin? Lot once said to her: ‘Give a little salt to these strangers,’ and she answered, ‘Are you introducing this bad custom into our city?’” Apparently Lot’s wife was not big on hosting guests.

Our sages support the notion that Lot’s wife (the Rabbis named her Idit), was justly punished. She was warned of the possible outcome of her action. She made a choice and suffered the consequence. I told you so.

But if we think about Idit’s experience, interesting questions arise. How did she feel about leaving Sodom? What and whom did she leave behind? What did she see when she looked back? How did her upbringing as a native Sodomite affect her ability to discern right from wrong? How was it to be married to a man who offered his two unmarried daughters to the townsmen of Sodom to “do to them as you please”?

In addition to Lot and Idit’s two unmarried daughters, they also had a number of married daughters. Their husbands did not heed Lot’s warning to leave Sodom. So Idit left behind at least two daughters, two sons-in-law, grandchildren, and her own birth family. Who wouldn’t look back? The hot desert sun dried her tears and turned her into a pillar of salt.

Lot also delayed when the angels urged him to leave. But he wasn’t punished for hesitating. Outside the city, he asks the angels again to change the consequences that were meted out. He persuades them to let him go to the town of Zoar instead of fleeing to the hills. Why wasn’t Idit offered even one reprieve? Writer Leora Zeitlin describes Idit: “For me the salient point is that in looking back, she becomes paralyzed, unable to go forward. She becomes a pillar of salt — the very image of tears petrified, ossified. That is her tragedy.”

Tragedy demands empathy. As we contemplate Idit’s tragedy, we can easily see her experience reflected in our own world: those who are physically or emotionally paralyzed, unable to look back or move forward. It is easy to intellectualize someone else’s experience, to analyze how their behavior led to their suffering. But what did they feel that caused them to make their choices?

Idit teaches us to dig deeper into a person’s psyche and experience. Next time we are tempted to say, “I told you so,” perhaps we can be more empathic and caring.


Rabbi Susan Leider
is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at [email protected]

 

Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at [email protected].