Finding our way from a pillar of salt

There are certain stories that stay relevant forever:  Family stories, and we are now in the most family-oriented part of Torah.  Although much of early Bereshit speaks of father/son relationships-between Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the brother-dramas of Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau and Joseph and, well everyone in the family-it's the mother stories that capture me. Sarah's infertility, the unexpected joy of birth, and her second-hand knowledge of Isaac's almost-death, a mother's despair of the very present almost-death of Ishmael, and the sudden, almost super-natural death of Lot's wife, right in front of her daughters' eyes.

Lot's wife's story-we never know her name, but the Midrash calls her Idit-has so many blank pages in it, which of course is why her story is ripe for midrash. As she takes/leads/follows her family away from her destroyed home, the Torah tells us, "And his wife looked behind him and became a pillar of salt."  (Gen 19:26)  Lot had been told not to look back. The Hebrew is singular, not plural; the instruction wasn't given to all who fled, just Lot. And, in a moment of "trope-midrash" (i.e. drawing commentary from the chanting cantillation in the text), the rare and beautiful shalshelet hovers over the word "vacillated"-Lot struggled with leaving, but the angels/men who were sent to warn him finally grabbed the family and took them away from Sodom.  

The eternal question we ask is "Why did she turn back?"  As is common in dealing with women who don't follow instructions, the commentary isn't kind to Idit. Genesis Rabbah says she sinned through salt. She asked neighbors for salt for her husband's guests, thereby letting the townspeople know about their presence, which led to the townspeople amassing outside Lot's door, demanding he hand them over to the mob. She sinned through salt, and died in salt.  Other rabbinic commentaries say that Idit refused to bring Lot the salt he requested for his guests.

It is remarkable how far these midrashim bend backwards to make sure the punished woman in the story is the "bad guy." There had to be a reason for her fate, and it had to be her own fault.  Today, we call this blaming the victim.

What if we see Idit's actions as something different?  

Idit looked back toward home, those left behind who perished, including two of her own daughters.  We see her weeping as she escaped, holding tight to the daughters she still had. Salt turns plain water into tears. Idit weeps so much, her entire being turns to solid tears. 

Rabbi Cynthia A Culpepper says in The Women's Torah Commentary, Idit chose to become a pillar, a memorial for her daughters, "This is where I come from...this too is a part of who you are." (p 66). Pillars give warning and direction; Idit stands forever as both memory, which we value so highly in Jewish life, and the future. She teaches her daughters to survive, with tears and desperate measures, but they survive and create life even in the midst of chaos and destruction.  

Idit stands as salt, precious and valued.  And most important, like salt, she preserves us all. 

Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.




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