A Pillar of Salt

4 NOVEMBER 2017 / 15 CHESHVAN 5778

Even the breeze is hot.

Hot, and dry.

You can feel the heat through your shoes. You can see it in the air. The sky is that sky-blue with a blue so rich and deep your eyes swim in it. Where you are standing, aside from some thin layers of silt and marl, everything is salt. Over the years salt accumulated to a layer 4.5 miles tall, now coated with deposits of eroded rocks and other minerals. The underground heat melted the salt, and the weight of the rocks on the surface creates a pressure that forces the melted salt up along the sides. Mount Sodom, 656 feet above the Dead Sea is still 623 feet below sea level.

Standing in that place, for all time, is the rough and salty shape of a woman.

We first encounter Idit, or in English – Edith, named only in the Talmud and not directly in the Torah (Tanhuma [ed. Buber], Vayera 8) in Vayera in Genesis chapter 19. Two angels, appearing as men, arrive in Sodom and Lot, Idit’s husband, urges them in for the night, fearing for their safety. His fear is soon proven wise when all of the men of Sodom – every one of them - crowd about Idit and Lot’s home and demand that Lot send the visitors out to be raped by them. The text is explicit. What’s more, for all of Abraham’s negotiating, God couldn’t find even a minyan of good people – not even ten people – in that whole community to save from the sulfurous fire sent to destroy Sodom. (Genesis 18:23-33, Genesis 19:24).

My heart wants to stand with Idit.

Horrifyingly, to protect his guests, Lot offers his daughters’ bodies to the men of Sodom. If Lot is the person most worth saving in this story, worth a visit from angels, taken by his hands by the angels, what was this world like? What was it like for Idit?

But in reading these verses, we already know the end of the story, and it hurts my heart, but we have to read them in context and ask how the men of Sodom knew about these visitors. Did Idit tell them? What’s more, why salt?

Our tradition generally describes Idit as jealous and inhospitable, no more welcoming of strangers than her neighbors. (Num. Rabbah 10:5) It is written that she even tried to bar their entry to the house, and then divided the house into two parts and told her husband: “If you want to receive them, do so in your part.” (Gen. Rabbah 50:6) The way many of our rabbis tell it, Lot wanted the members of his household to participate in the meritorious act of hospitality, as had Abraham, and he asked his wife to cook for them and bring them salt as Sarah had their guests. Idit responded: “You wish to learn this bad habit from Abraham?” (Gen. Rabbah 50:4). Eventually, she did as Lot asked, but with nefarious intent. She went to the women she knew – her neighbors – to borrow salt. Of course, they asked her: “Why don’t you have enough salt?” She explained, “Oh, I took enough for our own needs, but guests came to us.” (Midrash Aggadah [ed. Buber], Gen. 19:26).

What might dawn have been like in that hot and dry place? Would the morning have come with the coolness of a desert night? The breaking light a sudden flood of color? As it came, Lot's visiting angels urged him to get his family and flee, "Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away."

Why did Idit look back? Did she miss her neighbors, or did she want to watch them burn? Was she aching for her two daughters who refused to leave, (Genesis 19:14), or was she upset about her material losses? Our Torah does not answer these questions. All we know is that she looked back.

Lot’s wife looked back, and she turned into a pillar of salt. (Genesis 19:26)

We are taught that the pillar of salt was left by God as a memorial for all time (Yalkut Shimoni on Esth., para. 1056). There was something important enough to learn from the pillar that Moses saw it when God showed him the land before his death (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Masekhta de-Amalek, Beshalah 2). In anticipation of seeing the pillar ourselves, we are instructed to be prepared to recite two blessings. “Blessed be the One who remembers the righteous,” expresses thanksgiving and praise to God for remembering Abraham and saving Lot, and “Blessed be the true Judge” for Idit’s punishment. (BT Berakhot 54a–b)

It is memorable, this message, and it isn’t only heard by Jews.

In Islamic tradition, Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) nephew Lut (Lot) traveled with Ibrahim to Canaan. He was sent as a prophet to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to preach monotheism and to stop their lustful and violent acts. His messages ignored, the cities were destroyed. Lut left, but his wife looked back and was destroyed as well.

The Christian message comes right from Jesus, “It will be just like this . . . no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:30-33)

In Judaism, Idit is both a person and an archetype. Netsib – pillar – is translated elsewhere in the Torah as ‘garrison’ or ‘deputy’. What is it she is guarding us from?

In our society, we on the one hand seem to avoid looking at – and actually seeing – anything real and hard to witness: poverty, illness, death, racism. On the other hand, we are virtually unable to look away from anything sensational: Big Brother, Real Wives of All The Places, anything related to the Kardashians. Turning our attention to another with the right intention is how we begin to know them, alleviate suffering, amplify voices, and repair the world. Jealousy, inhospitality, and voyerism – where do these leave us?

Even the breeze is hot. Hot, and so dry. The sky so very blue. Standing in that place, for all time, is the rough and salty shape of Idit.

We see her there.

Blessed is the One who remembers the righteous.
Blessed is the true judge.