Torah Study

Lot’s Wife – Concerned or Simply Curious?

Lot’s wife, Idis, is briefly mentioned in parashas Vayeira, but Chazal reveal more about her negative character. She famously died by being turned into a pillar of salt as a punishment for looking back at the destruction of Sedom. She had four daughters; two were married and died in Sedom, and two were betrothed and conceived with their father, making Idis the ancestor of the nations of Moav and Ammon.

Lot’s wife barely appears in the Torah, yet her end is well-known: After looking back at the destruction of Sedom, she turned into a pillar of salt.[1] As always, a deeper analysis of the events leading to her death reveals important difficulties and teaches us important lessons.

Rabbinic sources elaborate on the story of Lot’s wife. The Medrash tells us that, like most inhabitants of Sedom, she was not a generous person. When Lot invited the malachim home, she was so unhappy about it that she decided to incriminate him with the people of Sedom: When he asked if she had any salt with which to season the food he was serving, she went around to her neighbors’ homes, asking for salt and explaining why.[2] Consequently, Lot’s “crime” of hospitality became known, which placed him and his family in grave danger. The malachim revealed themselves and instructed their hosts to leave Sedom and refrain from looking back at the destruction soon to take place.[3] However, when they did escape, Lot’s wife could not resist looking back and immediately became a pillar of salt. Two verses later, the Torah tells us that Avraham Avinu also viewed the destruction of Sedom, but no harm came to him.[4]

Two questions need to be resolved in this context. First, why was Lot’s wife punished so severely for merely looking back at the destruction of Sedom? Furthermore, why specifically was she turned into salt? It seems that her behavior with regard to the salt Lot wanted to serve his guests demonstrated her true nature. She was a heartless person, so her husband’s attempts at hachnasas orchim were repugnant to her. In her cruelty, she decided to reveal Lot’s kindness to her neighbors, though she surely surely realized her actions would endanger her family. Indeed, when the people of Sedom threatened to seize the guests, Lot was willing to give up his own daughters in order to save these visitors.[5]

This understanding of Lot’s wife clarifies her intentions in looking back at the destruction of Sedom. As mentioned, there is a stark contrast between her looking and Avraham’s. With regard to Lot’s wife the Torah uses the word lehabit, to stare. But with regard to Avraham, the word used is lehashkif, which connotes deep thought,[6] as in hashkafah, outlook on life. This indicates that Avraham viewed the destruction of Sedom with great contemplation. Rashbam writes that he was looking for ten righteous people in whose merit Sedom could be saved.[7] Thus, even amid destruction, Avraham’s kindness overflowed. In contrast, the looking of Lot’s wife was surely not based on kindness, as demonstrated by her recent cruelty. So why was she looking? It seems that she was simply curious, not because she cared about the victims, but because she wanted to see what was happening to them. This in and of itself may well have been worthy of punishment. Yet it seems that the bizarre nature of her death resulted from her previous callousness with regard to salt. This conduct demonstrated that she was not a caring person by any means, and that she gazed at the destruction of Sodom purely out of curiosity.[8]

We have seen how the curiosity of Lot’s wife proved to be her undoing. This teaches us an important lesson. Curiosity may seem neutral. However, like all neutral traits, it can be applied both positively and negatively. In the positive sense, curiosity makes a person take an interest in the world and expand his horizons. Indeed, the Chazon Ish, ztz”l, said that one should read the headlines to know what was going on in the world.[9] However, misapplied curiosity can become damaging. At best, curiosity for its own sake can lead to a person’s wasting his time being overly concerned about other people’s lives. At worst, it can lead to considerable lashon hara and involvement in unsavory matters.

Maran, Rav Aryeh Yehudah Leib Shteinman, shlita, in his commentary on the story of Lot’s wife, observes that nowadays people delve into every detail of tragedies. Learning too much about horrific events can be harmful, causing excessive fear and even paranoia.

What is the Torah’s attitude toward what people should spend their time discussing? In parashas Mas’ei, the Torah discusses the case of the manslaughterer. He is in danger of being killed by the goel hadam (a relative of the victim who wants to avenge his blood) until he flees to a city of refuge. The rabbis tell us that many signs pointed to such cities, so manslaughterers could find them quickly. In contrast, when people went to the Beis HaMikdash for the three pilgrimage festivals, there were no signs directing them to Jerusalem. Why not? HaShem wants people to ask others about the way to the Temple, because He desires that discussion be geared to such a holy topic. Yet HaShem has no desire that the manslaughterer ask people the way, because He does not want them discussing such an unsavory event. From here we see that while it is fine to know the news, one should not to cross the line into excessive interest in disagreeable matters.[10]

The story of Lot’s wife teaches us an important lesson about how and when it is appropriate to delve into the affairs of others. Whilst Avraham’s viewing of the destruction of Sedom emanated from his overflowing concern for others, the inquisitiveness of Lot’s wife stemmed from no such admirable trait, as demonstrated by her general cruelty. May we use our curiosity carefully and compassionately.


Notes and Sources

[1] Bereishis 19:26.

[2] Bereishis Rabbah 50:4, 51:5.

[3] Bereishis 19:17.

[4] Ibid. 19:19.

[5] Ibid. 19:14.

[6] Such looking can be negative, as in Bereishis 18;17, or positive, as in Devarim 26:15. However, its main significance in our context is that it emanated not from mere curiosity, but from contemplation.

[7] See Seforno for a different explanation.

[8] See Kli Yakar, Bereishis 19:17, for his explanation of why Lot’s wife looked back and was punished. Our approach was suggested to Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, shlita, and he approved of it.

[9] Heard from Rav Berkovits.

[10] Heard from Rav Yechiel Jacobsen, shlita.

From the book “Beacons of Light”



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