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Vayera: The Destruction of the Wicked

Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of Habad Hasidism, said that Jews must “live with the times,” meaning that we should live with the weekly sedra (Torah reading), finding contemporary meaning in the timeless text. Sometimes this is hard, but for the last few weeks it has sadly been too easy. First we had the first murder, then a world filled with violence (the Hebrew term is even hamas), then Avraham (Abraham) fighting a war to free captives. This week we have the destruction of Sodom and the other Cities of the Plain for their wickedness as well as the expulsion of Yishmael (Ishmael), seen by both Jews and Muslims as the ancestor of Islam, for negative behaviour (arguably for presenting himself as the true heir of Avraham although that’s a topic for another time).

It is hard to read of the destruction of Sodom and the other cities at this time without thinking of the effects of the war in Gaza. Like the inhabitants of Sodom, Hamas have been guilty of wickedness whose cry reaches to Heaven and are suffering destruction. How are we supposed to respond when we see the stark effects of destruction, however justified?

We can gain insight by comparing the responses of Avraham and Lot’s wife. According to the popular understanding, Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for turning back to gaze at the destruction of the cities, something she didn’t merit to see. However, Mark Glass[1] suggests that this may not be the case. There is no other punishment of transfiguration like this in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible); indeed, it feels more like something from pagan myth than from the Jewish worldview.

Glass brings some traditional interpretations that dissent from the view that Lot’s wife was miraculously transformed. According to Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi), her transformation was not a punishment. Rather, she simply hesitated and got caught up in the destruction of the cities. Her fate is not a divine punishment as such, but just a natural consequence of slowing down.

A more radical interpretation is offered by Hizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach). His interpretation is that the subject of the clause “and she [or it] became a pillar of salt”[2] is not Lot’s wife, but the cities themselves, mentioned immediately beforehand. Lot’s wife did not become a pillar of salt; the cities that she turned back to see became pillars or even “cities” of salt.

Glass suggests that God’s use of sulphur and salt to destroy the cities relates to the ancient practice of sowing a conquered enemy area with salt to prevent anything growing there in the future, destroying the economy of the area and effectively forcing the local inhabitants into exile. Lot’s wife sees the cities destroyed, but what resonates with her is not the death of the people she knew, but simply the economic consequences of the destruction: the cities will never be rebuilt. As in the traditional understanding of the sin of the cities, she cares only for profit, not for people.

Why then is Lot’s wife not mentioned subsequently? Glass suggests that it is not uncommon for minor characters in the Torah to fade into the background, so to speak, when not doing anything important. Her absence from the rest of the story is the result of her total disconnection from other people. She does not even care what happens to the rest of her family, even when it totally breaks down in incest. She is in her own world, one based on self-interest and profit alone.

Glass contrasts this with Avraham. He wakes the morning after hearing of the impending destruction of the cities, having pleaded for their survival, and quickly goes to see whether his intercession has been successful. What he immediately notices is the smoke rising from the plain, the sign of death and destruction.[3] Despite knowing that the inhabitants were completely wicked, it is the death and destruction that moves him, not the economic loss. Avraham accepted that evil must be stopped, but he was still moved by the destruction of the wicked, however necessary.

Please God the IDF will be totally successful in the removal of Hamas from Gaza, but being moved by the suffering of those present is part of our Jewish heritage. Just as in ancient times a Bet Din (court) fasted on the day of a judicial execution, to remind the judges of the seriousness of taking human life, however justified and necessary for the good of the community, so we too hold on to our humanity when we are moved by the destruction even from a just and necessary war.

[1] https://thelehrhaus.com/scholarship/lots-wife-was-never-salt-and-why-that-highlights-the-greatness-of-abraham/

[2] Bereshit 19.26 (Genesis 19.26)

[3] Bereshit 19.27-28

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management. He blogs about Judaism, Israel and antisemitism at Living Jewishly https://judaismuncovered.substack.com/
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