We don’t know the name of Lot’s wife, but we do know that she was a wife, and mother ... and when she looked back at the rain of sulfur and fire upon the city from which she had just escaped, she turned into n’tziv melach – a pillar of salt.
The outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their crime is very grave. And God’s messengers have come to assess and ultimately save Lot and his family. Lot is told of the forthcoming destruction to save his family. Upon hearing his warnings, his sons-in-law do not take him seriously. As dawn breaks on the morning of destruction, Lot is unsure, and the messenger takes Lot and his wife and two unmarried daughters by the hand to outside the city. They are told to “flee for your life and do not look back” (Gen. 19:17).
“As the sun rose over Sodom and Gomorrah, sulfur and fire rained down from the heavens, overthrowing these cities and the entire plain, all the cities’ inhabitants and what grew in the soil. And his wife looked behind him and became a pillar of salt” (Gen. 24-26).
What would you have done? Could you really not look back? What must the destruction have sounded and looked like? And what about her married daughters that stayed behind? Might there have been grandchildren? How could you not look back?
Perhaps we can read Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt as a metaphor for what happens when a person becomes so focused on the sadness of the past – what is behind them – that their tears become overwhelming, turning them into, so to speak, a pillar of salt.
The art exhibit at the Roe Green Gallery at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland features the work of Israeli artist Sigalit Landau. She has taken garments and objects and soaked them in the Dead Sea – the Salt Sea – until they become salt-encrusted shapes. There are those who also become so “soaked” in the tears of their sadness that they cannot move forward in their lives.
N’tziv melach – a pillar of salt – is Torah’s description. In Hebrew, n’tziv is in the same family of words, meaning to stand ready or a monument. A gravestone is called a matzevah. It is possible Lot’s wife serves as a gravestone, a monument, to the terrible loss of life.
As we revisit the monument, we are indeed sad for her loss, and the loss of so many. We shed tears, set a small stone to acknowledge our visit, and then, looking forward, step into our future.
Enid C. Lader is the rabbi at Beth Israel-The West Temple in Cleveland.