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“To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand.”
—Charles Taylor in “Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity”
Two figures in this week’s parashah are well known for where they stood.
The first is Avraham, who “remained standing before the Lord “ (Genesis 18:22) as he famously argues with God for Sdom’s salvation. The second is Lot’s wife, who was forever transfixed where she stood to look back at Sdom’s destruction.
Avraham’s motivations are clearly delineated: He refuses to move until he has justly defended Sdom against its impending Divine destruction. This stance is a defining moment for Avraham, and for us today as his children, of what it means to “keep the way of God to do what is just and right.” (Genesis 18:19)
Lot’s wife, in contrast, appears only briefly, and is just as abruptly rendered a pillar of salt. There is a complete lack of dialogue or inner motivations in the text. Despite the Torah’s minimal treatment, Lot’s wife sparked the imagination of Biblical commentators and generations of readers.
The midrashic tradition often portrays her in contrast to Avraham and Lot’s grand hospitality, an embodiment of the closed-hearted people of Sdom. Her salty fate is explained by some as payback for her meanness to guests in skimping on salt so the food wouldn’t be very appetizing. Others explain it as punishment for her desire to gaze at Sdom’s destruction, despite the angel’s warning not to look.
Yet, in another oft-cited midrash, Lot’s wife’s fateful turn is described as a flash of maternal love and care amidst the harsh backdrop. “The compassion of Idit the wife of Lot was stirred for her daughters, who were married in Sdom, and she looked back behind her to see if they were coming after her or not. And she saw behind the Shechinah, and she became a pillar of salt.” (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 25:11)
This compassion for her daughters contrasts sharply with Lot’s cruel and abusive behavior toward his unmarried daughters — first, offering them up to appease the violent mob in Sdom and, later, engaging in incest after they flee to the safety of the mountains.
The rabbis named Lot’s wife Idit, “she who bears witness.” To what did she bear eternal witness? Lot’s wife turned to gaze at the Shechinah’s destructive presence in Sdom, looking past the Shechinah for signs of her loved ones, and immediately is caught up in the path of destruction. The Zohar adds that only by showing her face fully did she expose herself to this Divine destructive power (Zohar 1:08a).
Avraham stood in the face of God.
Lot’s wife turned to face God.
We know where and for what Avraham stands. This daughter of Sdom — for what did she stand? Was it for the corruption of Sdom, her pillar an everlasting warning against the spiteful and narrow-minded tendencies that can destroy individuals and societies?
Or did Lot’s wife stand in opposition to the callousness of Sdom, gazing with pity on Sdom as Avraham had done, forever frozen in that loving stance in the face of Divine destruction?
Or, perhaps, Lot’s wife simply looked back at something she was not supposed to see: the Divine presence descending over Sdom.
Whatever caused her to turn back, her sudden choice to disobey the angel’s warning and the abrupt and harsh consequences are etched in the reader’s imagination.
Lot’s wife haunts us all, whether we harbor impulsive tendencies, make split-second choices in moments of crisis, or simply yearn to gaze where eyes should not wander.
What if she hadn’t looked? How might the ensuing narrative of Lot and his daughters, and the course of history that followed from their children, be altered?
Lot’s wife stands at the crossroads, wedged in the text between two major moral dilemmas Avraham faces — facing God to argue for justice in Sdom, and following after God obediently with the Binding of Isaac.
Lot’s wife, a minor unnamed character, just a regular woman caught up in the course of historic events, serves as a foil for the larger-than-life Avraham. Her tale reminds us that her choices, her orientation to the Divine, are no less significant in their power to transform the individual and the course of history.