Genesis 19 tells of the devastating fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the salvation of Lot, his nameless wife and their two daughters.
As they flee the terrible destruction of the cities, Lot’s wife turns to look and is immediately petrified and becomes a “pillar of salt” (19:26).
The commandment was clear: “Flee for your life, do not look behind you”, but Lot’s wife, whom the Rabbis called Idit (Tanchuma, Vayera 8), decided to do just that.
Traditional commentators explain the transformation as her punishment for disobeying God.
Did she share the wicked cities’ fate because she was as wicked as their inhabitants? Did she have other daughters in the cities and wanted to make sure they were all right?
The Christian New Testament even cites this passage as a warning against looking back when the second return happens (Luke 17:31-33).
But, one may wonder, why do people disobey? Instead of being just disobedience, isn’t it an act of defiance, or even revolt?
When the cities are destroyed, and possibly hundreds of people killed, Lot and his daughters simply turn and flee. But Lot’s wife looks back.
The Russian poetess, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) asks the question: “Who will grieve for this woman, who suffered death because she chose to turn?” (Lot’s Wife, 1924).
Idit represents those who decide not to turn a blind eye to suffering, to destruction, even though she had to pay a very high price. From disobedience to radical choice, her fate reminds us of the price one has sometimes to pay to stand up.
Here, literature and poetry come to rescue of traditional religious commentaries, which can sometime be trapped and go around in circles.
- Dr Rene Pfertzel is rabbi at Kingston Liberal Synagogue