Previous to the city being destroyed two angels disguised as men meet Lot, Abraham's nephew in Sodom. Lot offers shelter to these men and because of this hospitality, his house is surrounded by a gang, demanding that Lot bring out the two men in order that they know them, in the biblical sense. To protect these men Lot offers, his two virgin daughters in return. Not exactly a “g-rated story so far.
Luckily the two guests stop this from occurring and cause the men at Lot's door to go blind.
The visitors now known to be angels warn Lot to leave the city and to take all his family with him as God has sent them to destroy it.
Lot is unsuccessful in persuading his son-in-law's and their wives to leave with him. He is slow to leave the city, and the angels warn him to leave immediately and to not look back to the city. Unfortunately Lot's wife looks back on their way out of city and is turned to a pillar of salt.
Lot and his two daughters escape to the mountain. His daughters believing they have witnessed the end of the world, decide to cause their elderly father to become intoxicated to lie with him, in order to begin repopulating the world. These children from their father become the nations of Ammon and Moab.
The varying forms of violence in this Torah portion are disturbing to say the least. It makes me reflect on how individuals can be effected by the company they keep. Or how family can effect each other in profoundly positive ways or profoundly negative ways. We all have had cross roads in our lives when we had to choose who to continue being friends with or what turns our careers should take and those choices took effect on our future and those around us. Lot's choice to live in the city of Sodom instead of continuing a nomadic life with Abraham may have caused him to choose the ultimate sin of sacrificing his daughters.
What also struck me about this Torah portion was the lack of female voice within it. For example, Lots wife is not even given the respect of a name and this nameless woman is also voiceless to defend her daughters threatened sacrifice to the crowd of men in Sodom. And when she looks back to the city where her other daughters have been left to die, she is turned to a pillar of salt. Yes this lesson may be to teach one to fear and obey God but do you not feel her punishment was too severe?
According to the Midrash, the transformation of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt was not part of the general destruction of Sodom, but rather a special act with its own special purpose: to serve as a monument of memorial, that will remain forever as a testimony to the overturning of Sodom. (Sifrei de Aggadeta al Ester – Midrash Panim Acherim nushach 2 parasha 5) The properties of salt are contradictory, much like the punishment to Lot's wife, on one hand salt preserves and gives life while on the other it causes death.
Rabbeinu Bachye clarifies “the fundamental issues of the combination of two opposite poles – the attribute of justice and the attribute of mercy. The world exists by virtue of this combination.” Much like Lot's wife was not given mercy but was dealt the hand of justice to serve as reminder to those in the future about the errors of Sodom and Gomorrah. So was Lot's wife given the gift of eternal existence in a sense, as a monument to us the Jewish people. Some commentaries do not shed Mrs. Lot in such a positive light. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) said “she sinned with salt. On the very night that the angels had come to Lot, what did she do?” He states she went to all her neighbours and said to them, “Give me some salt because we have guests.” That her intent was to alert everyone to their presence. In this perspective Lot's wives intentions were not pure and may justify her punishment.
In preparing for this Dvar Torah I began to research this lack of women's voice within or about the Torah and discovered some very interesting contemporary feminist perspectives. I was introduced to one of the first Jewish feminist thinkers Cynthia Ozick, she asked in the eighties “ What is the right question” to understand the problem of women within Judaism, and wrote: “The truth is that it would be a blinding mistake to think that the issue of Jewish women's access to every branch and parcel of Jewish expression is mainly a question of “discrimination”...No. The point is not that Jewish women want equality as women with men, but as Jews with Jews... The nature of the excision is this: a great body of Jewish ethical thinkers, poets, judicial consciences - has not merely one generation but many; in short, an entire intellectual and cultural organism – has been deported out of the community of Jewish culture, away from the creative centre ... And this isolation, this confinement, this shutting off, is one of the cruelest events in Jewish history.” (136-137)
I think Lot's wife being turned to a pillar of salt is visual expression to that of Cynthia Ozick's words, that of women's perspectives being silenced and excluded. I have hope that the salt of that pillar has begun to melt away, as women in the words of Dr. Ronit Irshai states “So women start speaking, even in the orthodox movement. They write new interpretations of Talmudic stories in which they try to give agency and voice to their ancient sisters.”
Women like our very own Rabbi Elyse Goldstein are changing the present and future of Judaism. In Rabbi Goldstein's words in her book The Woman's Torah Commentary she states“a commentary written by women will contain messages of change within a traditional reverence for an unchanging text.” In this same text she gives an explanation for the word Midrash that spoke to me “Midrash comes from the hebrew root lidrosh to “examine” or “ interpret” which is the creative process of filling in the gaps.” That is exactly what I found myself doing as I read this portion I imagined what the women were thinking, what their motives may be. For example, with the daughters of Lot on the mountain with their father, they did not take a passive role in this portion of the story they took an active role, be it having sex with their father. They were taking their future into their own hands, in order to survive, to continue on. Yes their choices were sins but they were done to continue the Jewish people, a courageous sacrifice.
To many Jewish ethical thinkers women interpreting the Torah at all is considered an unacceptable sin, is this a judgement we women of this generation are willing to endure?
Why is it important that women continue to gain further voice in developing new interpretations of the Torah and Halakhic Tradition? It is important because these interpretations and laws will effect present day women voice and movements. We need to all make an effort to have interpretations of the Torah inclusive to all Jews.
As a resent Jew, the interpretation of the Torah is very new to me, but I think we can all make a difference to the diversity of the Jewish religious perspective. For instance each unique perspective adds to the quilt work of this shul. A shul that gives us the ability to speak out and be included in all dialogue within it, but if we were to look more broadly to Jews throughout the world that freedom of speech and identity is not so well established. Women and individuals who have not chosen a heterosexuality lifestyle still often do not have voice or the status they deserve.
Our Rabbi asked why the story of Lot's wife resonated with me, was it because I was a Jew by choice? As you may know Lot's wife was a native sodomite, so she was of a different following then Lot and she found his traditions foreign. For myself I did not find the traditions of Judaism foreign, in-fact it was more like a home coming. What I did find foreign was the religion that I was born to, Catholicism. I think it is primarily Catholicism that made me desire a strong female influence within my religion by choice, because it was absent in my religion by birth.
I repeat our Rabbi's words “Midrash ... is the creative process of filling in the blanks”, I think we all can have a role in filling in those blanks, in making our Jewish story better, more inclusive.
I may be accused of being an optimist, I believe the Jewish horizon is changing. Events like this give me hope, on June 26th, 2014 the first book of Resposa on questions of Orthodox Jewish Law was published by two women Idit Bartov and Anat Novoselsky ordained three years ago to serve as halachic decisors. The iron curtain is beginning to part, but we still have a lot of hard work to go and fights ahead.
I leave you with this poem:
While Lot advances his campaigns
She who has no name remains
Turning backward other wise
Witness to torment and demise
Becomes the salt of all our tears
Waiting frozen through the years
She suffers the punishing angels toll
Watches the eons of night unroll
Her reasonless compassion cries
Those lost are solaced in her eyes
Until the star-flecked darkness spins
To lilac rose and the new dawn begins
And shattered Holy Vessel’s parts
Restore again in all our hearts