Recently, I was asked if I believe the people populating our Torah actually existed somewhere in primordial Jewish history. My honest response was that it doesn’t matter to me. It is not historical fact I seek from our sacred texts, rather I search constantly for moral clarity and current relevance. For this reason, I appreciate deeply the story of Lot’s Wife. As an individual she is a mystery. As a metaphor, her power is extraordinary.
Unnamed in our Torah, Lot’s Wife is known for her family and her spectacular demise. We know nothing of her life or the details of her days. We are told that Lot and his family lived in Sodom, a city infamous for its ethical depravity. “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave,” God declares to Abraham. “I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not I will take note” (Genesis 18:20-21).
Two angels posing as itinerant travelers make their way to Lot’s home, where they are served a feast and sheltered from a hostile community. After witnessing the behavior outside Lot’s door, the angels determine to destroy the city. They warn Lot to flee with his family and Lot negotiate sanctuary in a town not far from Sodom. “As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Zoar, the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from the Lord out of heaven. He annihilated those cities and the entire Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the ground” (Genesis 19:23-25).
And then, “Lot’s wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26). If I were seeking factual history, I would surely scoff at such a line. If I were interested in sociological context, I would dismiss the story of Lot and his family as a fanciful tale to explain natural geologic formations and weather extremes. But as I am a Jew seeking transcendence, I tumble into the dangers of moving forward while simultaneously looking behind.
I imagine Lot’s Wife a woman engaged in ceaseless creation of a meaningful life. Her feelings towards her husband may be ones of admiration and adoration, or she may regard Lot with grudging respect for surviving battles no one else has witnessed. She has raised children and seen several of her daughters married. Lot’s Wife, I imagine, is integral in a sisterhood of women with whom she has facilitated births, comforted those in distress, and prepared the dead for burial. She possesses some degree of tenacity in the face of obstacles and maintains hope in an unknown future. When she looks back, she is risking her life for one last glimpse of all she leaves behind. She is fearful for her children trapped in the city, devastated by the destruction of the only home she has known, and already grieving the loss of a carefully planned future. When she looks back, she disobeys God. When she looks back, she loses her life.
With disconcerting awareness, I have realized that experiencing emotion and opening to a full and mutual exchange of feeling are two vastly different hemispheres. I have been called guarded, compared to a locked door and an impenetrable wall. While I can’t disagree with such a characterization, I feel far more shackled than protective. The irons of my past impede movement and I feel imprisoned by my own story. I am a regular visitor to the site of old wounds, I count daily those who have left my life, and constantly scan for patterns. I extract justification for disengagement from others and allow fear to dominate. I am always looking back.
So here I am, like Lot’s Wife, immobilized by looking behind. Whether she once walked the earth is irrelevant. Clearly, she exists within me. The figures in our Torah are gateways to new awareness, insight, and wisdom. They breathe because we do, and it is our own lives which keep them alive. I have no certainty about the future, but I know I do not want to remain where I am. I hear Lot’s Wife whisper from the pages of our Torah, “keep moving forward and always look ahead.”
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.