Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
In last week’s parasha Abram left the only life he had ever known behind when God called, and in so doing, became the world’s first Jew. This week, God commands Lot and his family to flee the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, specifically telling them not to stop along the way and not to look back lest they be consumed as well.
“And his wife looked back and she became a pillar of salt.” [Gen. 19:26]
There is an old legend which claims that a stone formation near the Dead Sea is actually Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, and that the Dead Sea is all that remains of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Torah neither proves or disproves this legend, but the next few verses suggest that the meaning is about more than geology:
“And Abraham hastened early in the morning to the place where he had stood in the presence of the Lord. And he looked out over Sodom and Gomorrah and over all the land of the plain, and he saw and, look, smoke was rising like the smoke from a kiln.” [Gen. 19:27-28]
Lot’s wife looked back and turned to salt. Abraham looked out and remained safe. They both saw the same destruction. Perhaps Abraham was safe because he was farther away. But was the distance merely physical or something more?
Lot’s wife did not turn into stone, but into salt – a symbol of bitterness. Looking back she mourned what was, preferring the known past – evil as it was – over an unknown future. Change, especially when it is thrust upon us, can seem terrifying and overwhelming. Yet, if there is one constant in the world, it is change. Lot’s wife wanted to stay in the past, and as a result, she became filled with so much bitterness that she was transformed into a “pillar of salt.” For her, there was no future.
Abraham, however, did not look back. He looked “out.” He was not fleeing, but moving forward.
Jewish spirituality, first and foremost, is a journey. Not that, like Abraham, we should leave everything behind. He already did that for us. Instead, we need to honor, respect, and learn from our past, even as we continue to look forward.
Abraham was open to the challenges and possibilities of a changing world. Lot’s wife was mired in the world as it had been. As a descendent of Abraham, it is strange indeed for me whenever I visit the Dead Sea to think about this story and wonder: what if … ?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras