The Pillar of Salt

Vatabeit ishto me’acharav vatehi netziv melach (Bereishis 19:26)

Parashas Vayeira details the destruction of the wicked city of Sodom and its environs as punishment for their evildoing, in particular for their staunch opposition to doing acts of kindness for others. The angels that were tasked with destroying Sodom told Lot to flee with his wife and two daughters in order to be spared, but they were cautioned not to look behind them to witness what was transpiring in Sodom. Lot’s wife did not heed their warning, and when she turned to gaze at the destruction, she was transformed into a pillar of salt.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 51:5) explains that because Lot’s wife had sinned with salt, this punishment was particularly fitting for her. In what way did she sin with salt? When Lot brought the angels to his home as guests, his wife made the rounds of all her neighbors to ask if any of them had salt that she could borrow in order to serve her guests. Although her behavior seemed innocent, in reality, her secret objective was to publicize to the townspeople of Sodom that she had guests, so that they would converge on her house and demand that the guests be handed over to them, which is indeed what occurred. Because she claimed to be out of salt in order to backhandedly announce the presence of her guests, she was punished by being turned into a pillar of salt.

This story is difficult to understand for two reasons. First, how is it possible that a self-respecting housewife ran her kitchen without such an essential condiment as salt? Second, why is the fact that Lot’s wife didn’t have salt a reason that she was transformed into a pillar of salt? Had she been lacking potatoes, would she instead have become a potato? What is the deeper connection between her sin and her punishment?

Rabbi Chaim Zvi Senter explains that salt is a condiment which, if eaten by itself, lacks good taste and nutritional value. Paradoxically, it is also an essential ingredient in countless recipes, and if omitted, its absence is clearly detectable. Even though salt seems to lack value when viewed in a vacuum, it is in reality an extremely versatile condiment with the ability to enhance the flavor of other ingredients. In this sense, salt can be described as a condiment whose entire purpose is to serve other foods.

In light of this insight, it is completely understandable that Lot’s wife was so steeped in the self-centered and stingy mindset that permeated Sodom that she viewed salt, a condiment whose very essence is dedicated to benefiting others, as an alien product which had no place being stored in her home. Similarly, her punishment of turning into a pillar of salt was particularly appropriate for her sin. Because she spent her life focused solely on her own selfish needs with an utter lack of concern for the less fortunate, she was transformed into an eternal monument to chessed by being forced to exist in the form of a condiment which serves no function other than assisting others.

Parashah Q & A

Q: Rashi writes (18:2) that one of the three angels was sent to heal Avraham from the pain of his circumcision. The Gemara in Bava Basra (16b) teaches that Avraham wore a precious stone around his neck which had the ability to heal any sick person who looked at it. Why did Hashem send an angel to heal Avraham when he could heal himself by gazing at this stone?

Q: How was Lot able to intercede in order to save one of the cities (Tzo’ar) from destruction (19:18–22) when Avraham, who was even greater and who argued even more on their behalf, was unable to do so?

A: The Maharsha suggests that although he was capable of healing himself through this stone, Avraham felt that the concept of temimus — being wholehearted with Hashem — mandated that he leave his recovery in Hashem’s hands. The Chida, Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, and Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, answer that because Avraham’s pain was due to a mitzvah, it was dear to him and he didn’t want to do anything that could be interpreted as regretting the mitzvah due to its consequences. The Paneiach Raza cites the Gemara in Brachos (5b), which records that although Rabi Yochanan healed others, he was unable to heal himself when he got sick because “one who is imprisoned cannot free himself from jail.” Although Rabi Yochanan and Avraham could heal others, they needed somebody else to help heal them. The M’rafsin Igri cites the Gemara in Taanis (20b), which teaches that miracles that are performed for a person reduce his reward in Olam Haba, so Avraham passed on a miraculous cure.

A: Harav Chatzkel Levenstein, zt”l, and Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, answer that as fervently as Avraham prayed on their behalf, it wasn’t possible for him to match the intensity of the prayers of Lot, who personally dwelled in the cities being obliterated and was directly affected by their destruction. Reb Chatzkel also suggests that the angels were grateful to Lot for hosting them, which obligated them to honor his request, while Hashem had no such debt to Avraham. Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, suggests that Avraham didn’t present the argument made by Lot (that Tzo’ar was more recently built and its sins were less than its neighbors), which would have indeed been accepted had he offered it.


 

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.