Parshas Vayeira has plenty to talk about. From Avraham ditching God to do hospitality, to Avraham arguing with God about destroying Sodom and Gemorroah, and ending with possibly the most troubling story in the whole Torah, Akeidas Yitzchak. But in the midst of all this Avraham centric narrative, the Torah takes a whole chapter to tell us a story about Avraham’s nephew, Lot. Whether you’re familiar with this story or not, you’ve probably heard about how Lot’s wife looked back and was turned to salt. Well, I thought I’d spend this post exploring what that’s about.
A-salt on Kindness
In last week’s parsha, Avraham and Lot split and Lot decided to take residence in the city of Sodom. Three travelers visit Avraham, who are in fact angels of God on their way to rain judgment down on Sodom and Gomorrah. Avraham debates with God, pleading for mercy but ends up losing. The angles (2 out of 3 of them) continue on to Sodom where Lot invites them in and offers Avraham style hospitality.
Sodom is infamous for its very liberal views on sexuality. But that alone probably would not have incited God’s wrath. Despite their open mind to physical pleasure, they were remarkably closed minded to people who “didn’t fit the mold.” In the Talmud, (tractate Sanhedrin) it talks about how there were strict bed sizes for everyone in Sodom and if the bed was too short or too long, newcomers were either stretched or their limbs were cut to adhere to the size. Now this is a Midrash, so while they may not have actually been hacking people’s limbs off, the conformity metaphor is pretty emphatic.
They also weren’t the biggest proponents of hospitality. So when Lot brings the men in, sure enough the people of Sodom find out and demand to persecute the visitors. As a mob gathers at Lot’s door, the angels spring into action and being their destruction. The angels remove Lot and his family from the city and instruct him, “Escape for you life. Do not look back.”
Hashem caused to rain upon Sodom and Gemorrah, sulfur and fire, from Hashem, from Heaven. He overturned these cities, and the entire plain, and all those who lived in the cities and all that grew upon the ground. His [Lot’s] wife looked behind him and she became a pillar of salt. (Bereishis 19:24-26)
Please Pass the NaCl
Why would Lot’s wife be so harshly punished in such a bizarre way? Rashi comments: “She sinned with salt and she was punished with salt.” She sinned with salt? What? Where? When? Then Rashi refers back to when Lot first brings in the two men/angels and starts serving them food. While eating, one of the guests taste the soup and asks for some salt. Lot’s wife is appalled by the request. “Serve some salt to the guests? Even this evil custom do you mean to introduce in this place?” So from this she goes to a neighbor’s house to borrow salt and complains about the guests. It’s from there that word gets out about Lot bringing in the strangers and thus the mob amasses.
That’s a pretty big reaction for something most of us keep in little shakers in the center of the table. What’s Lot’s wife getting so mad about? Rabbi Berenbaum from the Mir Yeshiva gave the following insight. Two people can both give chessed (kindness). But where one person can be a giver, the other person can be a taker. A giver cares about the receiver of the chessed. Are they happy? Are they comfortable? Do they need what I am giving them? While a taker only cares about themselves. When a taker offers chessed, and if you don’t like it, you get a reaction of something along the lines of,”How dare you?!”
A rabbi I learn with relayed over a story. A man had recently lost a family member and was sitting shiva. All day he had people visiting him, bringing him food, and sharing his burden with the mitzvah of a shiva call. But then at 10:30 at night, just as he’s about to go to bed, there’s a ring at the door. Another person had come to make the shiva call, but when it was convenient for him. Sure he got the mitzvah points, but he had completely missed the point of comforting the mourner.
Take It with A Grain of Salt
Lot had learned from Avraham the trait of hospitality and chessed. His wife had learned it too, but to only so far. Where Avraham had a tent with openings on all four sides so guests would never have to inconvenience themselves in the slightest to enter, Lot’s wife couldn’t believe that she had put out the effort and now was being asked for more. The moment about her looking back while they fled wasn’t a condemnation of her sensitivity to the suffering. It’s about the fact that she more identified with the people of Sodom and Gemorrah and couldn’t bring her heart to leave it. The trait of being a taker was too engrained in her. (No pun intended.)
When we make the decision to give, it is important to be aware of why we are giving. Is it for the guest or for ourselves? Though we may strive to try to prepare the perfect meal or make the perfect experience for our guests, we may forget the needs and feeling of the people we are serving. Identifying with the takers mindset leads to callousness, dissatisfaction, bitterness, and if you’re not careful, an angry mob outside your door. And that certainly would leave a bad taste in your mouth.