The Perplexing Pillar by Rabbi Ezra Wiener


Although the Midrash describes the miserliness and inhospitable conduct of Eishet Lot, which was certainly in consonance with the behavior of the citizens of Sedom, the Pesukim tell us almost nothing about her. After Hashem destroys Sedom and Amorah, “VaTabeit Ishto MeiAcharav, VaTehi Netziv Melach,” “And his wife looked behind him and she became a pillar of salt” (BeReishit 19:26). The Pesukim relate to us that Hashem rains sulphur and fire upon Sedom and Amorah to destroy them (19:24). Presumably, it was this scene that caught her eye, and therefore God meted out punishment in accordance with His warning – “Al Tabit Acharecha,” “Do not look back” (19:17). What precisely happened to Eishet Lot, and what was the reason behind this warning of not looking back? It is certainly reasonable to assume that if we understand Hashem’s motive behind issuing such a warning, we will better understand the punishment inflicted upon Eishet Lot.

According to a famous Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 51:7), on the evening the angels arrived in Sedom and received Lot’s welcoming and gracious invitation, Lot’s wife was busy searching throughout the city for salt. Her objective was to expose the whereabouts of her guests to the people of the city by asking around, “do you possibly have any salt for guests that have arrived at our house?” Rashi (19:26 s.v. VaTabeit Ishto MeiAcharav) refers to this Midrash but presents an alternate exchange about the salt. According to Rashi, it was Lot who asked his wife to give salt to their guests (it appears they already had salt according to this version), and his wife responded, “you even want to practice this evil custom in this place?”

From Rashi’s explication, we can postulate that Eishet Lot received a unique, precise, and irregular punishment. Her punishment was in accordance with her wrongdoing – Middah KeNeged Middah – and was meted out due to her inhospitable behavior. What is strange about this approach, however, is why she was saved at all from the destruction of Sedom. If she identified with the despicable behavior of the people of Sedom to the extent that she couldn’t accept one instance of Hachnasat Orechim in support of her husband, then she too should have suffered the same fate as the people of Sedom. It would not be enough to claim that the type of punishment (that she became a pillar of salt) was sufficient. She should have been punished while still in the city, without the opportunity to escape. In addition, according to this Midrash, why did she receive this punishment for looking back? The logic of our Middah KeNeged Middah is flawed. Does the punishment rea  lly fit the crime? She should have received a punishment that was commensurate with the violation of the warning to not look back. How is being turned into a pillar of salt the appropriate punishment for looking back?

Chizkuni (19:26 s.v. VaTehi Netziv Melach) is not bothered by any of these questions in his second interpretation of the Pasuk. According to his second approach on the Pasuk, “VaTehi Netziv Melach” does not refer to Eishet Lot, but rather to the city of Sedom. The Torah reports in Parashat Nitzavim (Devarim 29:22) that not only did sulfur and fire descend upon the city, but salt also descended upon the city. When Hashem admonishes the Jews and warns them about what will occur to the land of Israel if there are Jews who will follow their heart’s desires and neglect Shemirat HaMitzvot, He says, “Gofrit VaMelach Sereifah Chol Artzah… KeMahpeichat Sedom VaAmorah.” This Pasuk demonstrates that the “Netziv Melach” refers to Sedom, not Eishet Lot.

Considering that the Gemara (Berachot 54b) and the Shulchan Aruch have instituted that a Berachah be recited upon seeing the pillar of salt of Eishet Lot, it is essential that we find a working interpretation of these Pesukim. Rashbam claims that Lot, his wife, and his daughters were forewarned not to gaze at the city’s destruction in order that they not see the suffering of the sons-in-law who scorned the angels and remained in the city due to their skepticism about the impending destruction of Sedom. Alternatively, Rashbam posits that it was inappropriate for anyone to gaze at the angels as they destroyed the city – there is always a concern that a person will lose his life when exposed to the heightened presence of the Divine which is manifest through the angels.

According to Rashbam, undoubtedly, Lot’s wife was punished for looking back. She received her punishment either because she gazed at the city and the destruction of others or because she exposed herself to the sublime Kedushah of the angels. However, we are still left puzzled as to the significance of turning into a pillar of salt, assuming we reject the Chizkuni’s approach and accept “Netziv Melach” as a reality. Radak (19:26 s.v. VaTehi Netziv Melach) proposes that the simple reading of the Pesukim is that Lot’s wife was punished for looking behind her. However, she was punished either because she had little faith in Hashem’s ability to destroy the city, or because she had little faith that Hashem would carry out His word. The measure for measure allotted to Eishet Lot was that she received the identical punishment as the citizens of the city received. Just as the citizens of Sedom and Amorah all essentially became pillars of salt due to the heavy volume of salt and sulfur that rained down upon them, so too, Eishet Lot was turned into a pillar of salt.

Eishet Lot suffered the same fate as the people of Sedom suffered according to the Midrash because she displayed an aversion to acts of loving kindness and a reluctance to break free from the corrupt conformity imposed by societal pressures. On the other hand, perhaps following Radak, she suffered their fate not because she necessarily embraced such a lifestyle and expressed loyalty to corruption and injustice, but because she didn’t perceive the pervasive depravity. She may not have been an active participant or exponent of the degeneracy of Sedom, but her failure to recognize the degree of ideological erosion and consequently the justification for complete ruin through Divine intervention was sufficient grounds for her to be taken along with the rest of the city. She questioned the need and appropriateness of such harsh Divine intervention. She doubted that God would really wipe out the entire city. She believed God was compassionate and slow to anger.

We don’t claim to understand Hashem’s system of justice, but the inability to explain it does not give us the right to dull our minds and our hearts to what is right and wrong. Our inability to explain why Hashem sometimes exercises restraint and chooses not to punish an individual, a community, a nation, or a terror organization should not dull our barometer of measuring good and evil. Occasionally, Hashem does take out His wrath. And Sedom was well-deserving of its punishment. Eishet Lot’s flaw, of which many are guilty, was her erroneous evaluation that God’s failure to destroy the city up until this point was an indication of His acceptance of this loathsome behavior as culturally sound and unworthy of  punishment. God leaves the determination of good and evil to our moral consciousness, and it is not to be inferred from God’s choice of deliberation or immediacy in inflicting punishment.

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