How should we react to times of change, when we lose what we have, when civilizations crumble, during political turmoil, during pandemics?
The story of Mrs. Lot may assist. She was told by the angel leading her exit from Sodom not to look back (or stop anywhere on the plain) “lest you be swept away” (Genesis 19:17), but she just couldn’t help herself. She looked back at the city’s destruction and was turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26).
There is something inevitable about the outcome of this story. It’s like being told not to think about a white polar bear sitting on an iceberg. One just can’t help but think about one. I’m pretty sure I would have looked back.
To avoid being turned into a pillar of salt, I might have lifted my phone over my shoulder and shot a video or held up a mirror, but I would certainly have tried somehow to see what had become of the city where I lived.
Admit it. You would have done the same — not out of morbid curiosity, but because your friends lived there, because that was your life, because you care.
The commentators wonder why Mrs. Lot met her fate the way she did. Rashi says she failed to show hospitality to strangers by offering them salt – so nothing to do with looking back (Rashi Genesis 19:26). The Chizkuni (13th century) translates the Hebrew word “vatehi” (“and she”) as “and it” so the sentence reads “and it was turned into a pillar.” The “it” refers to the land of Sodom. On this reading, it was the land that was transformed, not into a pillar of salt, says Chizkuni, but into a field of sulfur and salt. Mrs. Lot survived (Chizkuni, Genesis 19:26). Still, the commentators, do not like her much.
Putting that aside for the moment, what would Mrs. Lot have seen had she looked back? For that matter, what did Abraham see the next morning when he looked down on the same sight as Mrs. Lot, toward Sodom and Gomorrah? (Genesis 19:27-28)?
The story provides few details. Nothing at all from Mrs. Lot and from Abraham a few poetic words “smoke rising like the smoke of a kiln” (Genesis 19:28). There is here a gap for artists and poets to fill. And they have, bringing out our humanity in ways that the medieval commentators cannot always do. There are several wonderful poems which consider what Mrs Lot saw as she looked back on the destruction of her civilization. See for example, “Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), “Lot’s Wife,” by Anne Simpson (links provided), and Natalie Diaz’s “Of Course She Looked Back,” which I particularly like.
Here it is in full, with kind permission from Copper Canyon Press (from “My Brother Was an Aztec” Copyright © 2012):
Of Course She Looked Back by Natalie Diaz
“You would have, too.
From that distance the shivering city
fit in the palm of her hand
like she owned it.
She could’ve blown the whole thing —
markets, dancehalls, hookah bars —
sent the city and its hundred harems
tumbling across the desert
like a kiss. She had to look back.
When she did, she saw
pigeons glinting like debris above
ruined rooftops. Towers swaying.
Women in broken skirts
strewn along burned-out streets
like busted red bells.
The noise was something else —
dogs wept, roosters howled, children
and guitars popped like kernels of corn
feeding the twisting blaze.
She wondered had she unplugged
the coffee pot? The iron?
Was the oven off?
Her husband uttered Keep going.
Whispered Stay the course, or
Baby, forget about it. She couldn’t.
Now a bursting garden of fire
the city bloomed to flame after flame
like hot fruit in a persimmon orchard.
Someone thirsty asked for water.
Someone scared asked to pray.
Her daughters or the crooked-legged angel,
maybe. Dark thighs of smoke opened
to the sky. She meant to look
away, but the sting in her eyes,
the taste devouring her tongue,
and the neighbors begging her name.”
The poem starts with the sentiment I started out with. We all would have looked back.
In her portrayal of destruction, Diaz captures the life of the place; towers, bars, markets, dancehalls, music, domestic life – all going up in smoke.
“Women in broken shirts// strewn along burned-out streets// like busted red bells” – has the feel of a news report from a warzone. There are sounds of dogs weeping, requests for prayer and water, and the horrendous image of children and guitars popping “like kernels of wheat”- people obliterated as objects. The description of the city as a “bursting garden of fire”, its flames “like hot fruit in a persimmon orchard”, is at once beautiful, terrifying, and sensuous, and points at what is being consumed.
The poem ends with a portrayal of Mrs. Lot that we are not used to. She feels for others. She meant to look away but could not because of “the sting in her eyes// the taste devouring her tongue// and the neighbors begging her name.”
The poem is a lament which forces us to acknowledge, like Abraham did, that despite its wickedness, Sodom had history, culture, a narrative, people. The poet brings mercy to a story about justice.
But there is the pillar of salt and the injunction not to look back. These cannot be ignored.
Salt has been used for millennia as a preservative. Our ancestors killed more than they could eat in a single meal, and so had to find ways to keep fish and meat fresh. Salt was the answer. This beneficial property is recognized in halachah in the context of salting meat (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 69:20). Salt fixes, prevents decay by reducing water activity, holds time in abeyance.
But time cannot be held in abeyance but must flow. When civilizations require remaking, we must let go of the past. We might cling to our images of life before corona, crave golden ages, long for days of yore, to make things “great again” i.e., as they were before, but we never can. Beware of people seeking to turn back the clock, particularly when it comes to politics.
So, this is the message of Mrs. Lot’s story and the pillar of salt. Don’t cling to the past. We can make things exceptional, but not precisely how they were. We can renew our days “like” days of old, but not reinstate the days of old (Lamentations 5:21). The past makes us who we are, but time should move in spirals, not circles, advancing ever upward, gradually, like tree branches reaching for the sun.