THE THINGS TEARS ARE MADE OF
Revisiting Lot’s Wife with Debbi K. Levy
Our Torah gifts us the opportunity to envision and fill in our own words between the sacred verses. That is what you are reading here today. The in-between. The unspoken. The feelings surrounding my mighty action of looking behind as my feet continued to propel me forward. This is my story.
My name is, well, more on that later…
Perhaps you have heard of me. Most likely it was in the beginning of your religious school training, when you were a child. I have been, and continue to be, one of the greatest metaphors for looking back. I have been pointed out countless times to teach morals of stories. Today, in your studies of mindfulness, you will note with pity, my inability to live in the present, my weakness of character, that prompted my need to glance back one last time, to reflect on what was, rather than forging ahead with my husband, a daughter’s hand in each one of his, fleeing quickly, as the angels instructed. It is easy to nod your head in approval of all that has been said of me, but please remember what a simple thing that is to do, an uncomplicated way to examine Genesis, chapter 19. Consider the story from my perspective. For you, it will be a biblical exegesis. For me, a re-telling of my life. My heart revealed.
13:1 From Egypt, Abram went up into the Negev, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with Lot.
You should know that it was no happenstance that Abram and Lot chose to journey together. Lot was Abram’s brother, he was Haran’s son. There was more than a fondness of an uncle for his nephew, for Lot was intelligent, and as capable as Abram, growing the herds and leading their families and tribes forward to great, even unimaginable wealth. Abram was a prophet of G-d and, I believe, in Lot’s way, my husband, too, was close to G-d in the sacred work he offered to the L-rd. Both of these men made altars and invoked G-d’s name wherever they were. They fully understood that G-d, alone, was responsible for the creation of Heaven and earth. Both of these men, with their wives and children and servants, were steadfastly humble, and welcomed strangers into our camps as G-d wished us to do. The blessings that followed were undeniable.
We were part of the blessing, Lekh Lekha, and were on a journey from Beit El. If you sigh knowing we had to go forth once more, remember that this, too, was in the L-rd’s plan, to eventually bring us back some four hundred years later.
13:5-12 Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle. The Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land. Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go South: and if you go south, I will go north.” Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of Jordan, all of it- this was before the L-rd had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah-all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the L-rd, like the land of Egypt. So, Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other. Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom.
We journeyed eastward. We, meaning my daughters, their betrothed, servants, maid servants, cattle, goats, donkeys, and all who served and made our tribe strong and important. Lot chose our direction, but it was I who implemented his decision. As the wife of Lot, our patriarch, I had much work to do. We had births during our short journey, and I brought up the rear, caring for the new babies, the toddlers, the elders, the quarrelers, the dawdlers,and all the animals. I was always behind my beloved Lot, exactly where I wanted to be. When Lot looked back, the contentment on his face made me feel more pride in myself than I had ever known.
My gift has always been the looking and the worrying after, the in-between. Lot did not have another wife, only and uniquely me, and I am proud of my contribution and my dedication to Lot. I am tireless in supporting Lot and all who follow him, out of loyalty to his and Abram’s G-d, to my G-d. It was I who assured my husband of a successful journey — and a successful life, too, for that matter.
I think to myself: the L-rd, Who has made heaven and earth, brought us here to the beautiful land of Sodom in great number and wealth, and sheltered us during our journey. We will undoubtedly prosper here, and my daughters will have husbands and children of their own here. And here in Sodom, I will be a grandmother, a true matriarch, to be recorded in the history of our people, to be remembered for generations forward. Perhaps, remembered four hundred years later when we, as the Chosen people, return to our sacred and rightful place.
13:13 Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the L-rd.
Sodom was, indeed, wicked. I had not experienced such chaos in the course of my lifetime. I was accustomed to a certain order about my life and order in the life of our tribe. An order that recognized the L-rd above all else. Wherever we dwelt we placed an altar to make known to all those with and surrounding us of that fact. Sodom had no order, none that I could identify with anyway. Perhaps the greatest challenge I faced was the absence of respect for one another. Inside Sodom, there was no great respect for a father from his children or respect between a wife and her husband, with all of the subtle affection shown to one another. Most strange to me was the unkindness to visitors here in Sodom. Before we arrived in Sodom, we would never turn someone away from our dwellings without offering them comfort and refreshment. I spent many an evening watering camels for travelers, or baking bread, even preparing great feasts when a situation merited feasting. It was not only that we made an altar before G-d, but that, indeed, we followed all the laws and precepts with great joy.
Over time, it was increasingly difficult to remain the people we were before Sodom. I longed for the kindnesses we practiced in Beit El. I longed for the elders we left behind. Perhaps their wisdom would have made the difference in Sodom. Now, all I do is dream of what my life in these Plains could have been.
19:1-2 The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting at the gate. When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them and, bowing low with his face to the ground, he said “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night, and bathe your feet; then may you be on your way early.”
This was my humble Lot, keeper of the L-rd’s laws. In this place of wickedness, my husband welcomed strangers and prepared a feast. He practiced the hospitality we knew not in this place. I remembered my deep affection for Abram and Sarai at this moment, for all of the feasts and the joy they brought to all our tribesmen in those days, as we welcomed so many strangers into our midst. It was during those very occasions that I was at my best, using spices and secrets handed down to me from my own mother and aunts. Visitors always remembered the taste in their mouths, and the welcome feeling they carried, long after they departed Lot’s settlement. How could I have known that on this occasion the strangers were angels?
Terrible scenes began to unfold, some I would rather not share, but you may read them on your own, concerning the townspeople of Sodom and their wicked, sinful acts. They tried to storm our entrance, to confront the men we took into our care, for only an evening of respect and refreshment. Lot offered everything we had, that they not harm the visitors we had taken in with pride and humility before the L-rd. Lot even offered the Sodomites our daughters as a consolation rather than the two men. To no avail.
19:12-17 Then the men said to Lot, “Whom else have you here? Sons-in-law, your sons and daughters, and said, “Up, get out of this place, for the L-rd is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law as one who jests. As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on, saying, “Up, take your wife and remaining two daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city.” Still he delayed. So the men seized his hand, and the hands of his wife and two daughters – in the L-RD’s mercy on him – and brought him out, and left him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, one said, “Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away.”
Lot delayed the angels all that he could. Although he did not speak his words directly to me, I still understood his actions. Like his mentor and uncle, Abram, Lot was not afraid to lead. He desperately did not want to turn and flee from all of those he had brought to this place, this place of his own choosing, with the whole Plain of Jordan watered so completely, and all that this land could have supported. I believe my husband to be an optimist, to believe that, at some point soon, the people would turn to the L-rd in humility and shame, mending their wicked ways. Lot did not chastise them out loud, but spoke always by his actions. Even in this despicable setting, sitting in the gate of Sodom, he welcomed these visitors, our angels, and bowed low, with his face to the ground, which was not the custom in Sodom. Lot was harmed, and treated with disrespect by the inhabitants of Sodom, and so was I. But to flee? To flee from the babies, and daughters, and herdsmen, and all we brought here? The angels gave us no choice. They tugged at our hands.
All could see the skies turning at this point. All could feel the anger and fury in the clouds and the sky. There were no sweet smells of the season, nor chirping birds to hear. Only this fury. I believe I was screaming out loud, in complete disbelief, as the angel grabbed ahold of me. The hair on my body stood up as if to scream, too. I took in what was happening as best I could, the glances from those we were being pulled from. The fear in their eyes. The acrid smell coming in and out of my nostrils. If only we could have been given one last opportunity to mend our ways, but this, no! I had more than two daughters, and they were not part of this hastened exit. Only two were fleeing. Lot grabbed their hands. Another scream, and still another.
I bring up the rear for Lot. I bring up the dawdlers. I stay behind until the animal’s leg is set, or the baby has been born, then I catch up, only to receive the loving look from Lot that says how he feels about all that we create together. I am responsible for the in-between. No! Lot is not even leading, now, the angels are pulling him. The sounds are more terrifying, the earth feels as if it, too, is quaking! My older daughters, those I left behind, what might they be confronting? My feet are trying to keep up, but I am too frightened to be brave and cannot continue running. I want to stop and weep for a moment, just a moment or two, at all that has been lost. But I cannot. The angel’s admonition, “Do not look behind you!” rings in my ears. For just the smallest shard of time, might I look over my shoulder, even at this pace, just one last glance for my daughters? I know I can catch up! For this is my identity. I look after everyone.
19:24 The L-rd rained upon Sodom, and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from the L-rd out of heaven. He annihilated those cities and the vegetation of the ground. Lot’s wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt.
Your task, my reader, student of G-d’s precepts and laws, is to insert your own thoughts into this telling. You have the words of Genesis and now you have my narrative, as well. But what about you? Can you draw upon your values, experience, and knowledge to understand what, and why, we lost so much?
If you choose to read further in Genesis, you will learn the legacy my daughters and Lot brought forth. It was not the line of people I had dreamed of in my earlier years. But do not only take misery from the part of the Torah where I am mentioned. I had sacred and emotionally satisfying years, as well.
Before you depart, I ask one favor of my reader. Might you give me a name of your choosing? Even though I am proud to be her, I would prefer to be called by name, rather than forever known as “Lot’s wife.” Choose for me a name you would give a woman you respect, a woman who is a great nurturer, who worships, who speaks humbly, and follows all the L-rd’s precepts and laws. Except and only one. Give me a name that heals the past, that I may start over in your mind, or even, perhaps, the eyes of my people.
You can find Debbi K. Levy at Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Beth Torah, teaching Yoga Through A Jewish Lens. She welcomes your emails at Debbiklevy@gmail.com.