Don't look back!

A blast of burning chemicals petrified Lot's wife, who still hankered for life in Sodom, it's where her heart was. A lesson from history.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller ,

HaRav Avigdor Miller zts"l
HaRav Avigdor Miller zts"l
INN:Toras Avigdor

Part I. Looking Back

An Extraordinary Place

In this week’s sedrah (Torah portion) we read about a remarkable incident that took place in Eretz Canaan; the mehapechas Sodom v’Amorah – the overturn of Sodom and its sister cities. Today, if you visit Eretz Yisroel you’ll see that the most desolate place in the land is in the south, in the plain where these cities formerly existed. The cities of Sodom, once large and thriving centers of commerce, are now nothing at all.

You know, there was a time when the Bible critics denied that there ever were such cities; they said that the entire story of Sodom was invented from thin air to explain the utter desolation of that area. Unfortunately for them however, it has become abundantly clear from the recently unearthed archives of Ebla – Ebla was a thriving city in ancient times – that they were engaged in large scale commerce with the cities of Sodom. They have found many clay tablets, letters written on tablets, that detail negotiations back and forth with Sodom about the buying and selling of all types of merchandise.

And not only was Sodom a thriving city, but it was a very fertile area. Surrounding the city of Sodom were lush fields and beautiful gardens, all of them well watered by the Jordan River. It was so remarkably beautiful that the Torah describes it as k’gan Hashem, as delightful as Gan Eden was. Now, whether it was exactly like Gan Eden, probably not. But it was certainly something extraordinary.

Destruction and Rescue

It didn’t last however. Because of their sins –“they did not support the hand of the poor and needy” (Yechezkel 16:49); and there were other sins too – Hakodosh Boruch Hu (Hashem, the Almighty) passed a sentence of destruction upon the entire district of the five cities of Sodom. It was a frightful scene to behold. וַיַּהֲפֹךְ אֶת הֶעָרִים הָאֵל– Hashem overturned those cities. “Overturned” means that it didn’t happen gradually. It wasn’t due to a slow erosion of the soil or some similar deterioration; it took place instantaneously.

The Torah describes how a hail of burning chemicals – ignited sulfur together with salts – rained down in enormous abundance and everything became mineralized. Even today, nothing grows in that area. It’s a desert, but not of sand – it’s a desert of chemicals. Today they scoop up not only salt from the Dead Sea but many other minerals as well. There is, for example, a magnesium plant right next to Sodom.

Instead of a garden of Hashem, it became a place of desolation; so much so that even many years later when the prophet Jeremiah wanted to speak of an example of a total ruin he quoted Sodom as the example (Yirmiyahu 49:18). Forever, Sodom became the model of a burned out country — almost nothing in that sinful city escaped the wrath of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

I say ‘almost’ because every little child knows that immediately before the torrent of chemicals came raining down, Lot and his wife made an escape from the city. What happened? Hashem had compassion on Lot – after all he was one of Avraham's closest relatives, and even more so, he was his disciple – and so Hashem sent messengers to warn him to flee the city along with his and thereby save their lives: הוֹצֵא מִן הַמָּקוֹם – “Take everything you can and run!” they told him. “הָהָרָה הִמָּלֵט – Escape to the mountains!” וַיֹּצִאֻהוּ They seized him by the arm and urged him: “הִמָּלֵט עַל נַפְשֶׁךָ – Flee for your life!” And that’s exactly what they did – Lot and his wife escaped with the angel messengers, the malachim, towards the outskirts of the city.

The Warning

Now, we must note that in addition to the efforts of the malachim to rescue Lot and his family, they also added a word of caution as they were making their escape. Just before fire descended to destroy the city, the malachim, al pi Hashem, gave one final instruction to Lot and his wife: “אַל תַּבִּיט אַחֲרֶיךָDon't look behind you” (ibid. 19:17), they warned.

Now to us that seems queer. “Don’t look back”?! Why not? As long as you’re running away, as long as you’re getting out of the danger zone, who cares if you look back? You can still run even though you turn your head back for a moment! As long as you’re not delaying your departure, what’s the problem?

No Table Salt

And not only were they warned not to look back but we see that it was punished by death. וַתַּבֵּט אִשְׁתּוֹ מֵאַחֲרָיו וַתְּהִי נְצִיב מֶלַח – When Lot’s wife looked behind him she became a pillar of salt (ibid. 19:26). At that moment she was hit by a blast of burning sulfur and chemicals falling from the skies and immediately she was mineralized – she became a fossil. The impact of the blast of burning chemicals paralyzed her and in a short time, perhaps in a course of a few hours, she became a “pillar of salt.” It doesn't mean ordinary table salt; netziv melach means she became a pillar of chemicals.

That’s what a fossil is; as a result of the exchange of minerals for proteins, organic material undergoes the process of being ossified, of being changed into rock.

And thereafter, for years and years, wayfarers who passed through this desolate place would point to this pillar as a testimony to what had taken place. Everybody knew by tradition that this column of salt had once been a human being who had become petrified while on the run to escape the destruction; a woman had turned her head to take one last look at her dying city and she was therefore sentenced to remain with that city forever.

What’s Wrong?!

Now, that’s not something that’s easy to understand because what’s the big crime after all? It’s true that she transgressed the admonition of the malach – he said, “Don’t look behind,” and she did; she cricked her neck to look back at Sodom, but is that such a serious crime? Is looking back at the city where you lived for so long a sin that deserves a punishment of death?

It’s a big question actually and it means that we have to begin to understand what it means to look back; what’s so wrong with peering behind.

The medrash tells us that the wife of Lot had fallen in love with Sodom. She liked the place because it was a place of wealth and conveniences. It was a luxurious city with many attractions, and that's why they chose to dwell there. It was a city where only the well-to-do, the prosperous, lived and Lot and his wife were happy there; they identified with Sodom. And that's why when it came time to leave it wasn’t easy for them.

Now, Lot himself, when he followed the instructions of the malachim and made sure to not turn around and look back, demonstrated what he was, where his mind was. Sof kol sof, finally, he was a disciple of Avraham and when it was necessary, when he saw the judgment of heaven and he realized how great was the wickedness of this place so he fully sympathized with that attitude and he faced away from Sodom; he turned his back on Sodom – he was finished with them. Lot was man enough to say goodbye entirely. He learnt a lesson and he faced resolutely forward to a new future by means of forswearing any connection with the wickedness that Hakodosh Boruch Hu disapproved of.

Loyal to Family and City

But Lot's wife not so much. You know that a woman is more committed to her environment; she more easily amalgamates with the neighbors and therefore even though her husband was able to divorce Sodom from his heart – at least when he was urged to do so by the malachim – Lot's wife couldn’t do it. She was acclimated to the culture of Sodom and when the time came to leave she was quite displeased. It was a good living in Sodom, and she was most reluctant to leave.

Of course she was prepared to leave the city; absolutely. She had no alternative; the malochim were urging her and her husband was leaving. In those days everyone was loyal to the family ideal. No woman would separate from her husband and break up a family. And therefore when Lot fled from Sodom, his wife went along with him.

But one thing she couldn't resist; she couldn’t resist taking one last parting look at her beloved home. And so, as she was making her way from Sodom she turned around for a moment and she stole one glimpse over her shoulder. The possuk doesn’t tell us but it could be she even shed a tear on behalf of the beloved city where she had lived so happily and enjoyed life for so many years. וַתַּבֵּט אִשְׁתּוֹ מֵאַחֲרָיו she looked back towards Sodom.

Symptom of Sympathy

We have to understand that looking back is a very significant symptom; it’s a symptom of hankering, of where your mind really is. That’s why the malach who came to rescue them made that a condition. He didn’t only warn them against stopping on the plain. Of course if they would stop, if they would turn around and reconsider, they wouldn’t survive. But Hashem demanded more than that. “Don’t look back!”
This slavish subjection to the gentile environment is what it was expected that Lot and his wife would sacrifice. That's why the malach said, “Don't look back!”
Any demonstration of a reluctance to separate, that’s already a symptom of rot; it shows that your heart is still in Sodom. It’s a demonstration of where your sympathy lies and therefore Hakodosh Boruch Hu won’t consider you worthy of being spared their fate.

If someone is living a decent life but inwardly he yearns for the gay and loose ways of the outside world, he is identified as a member of the outside world because a person is not what his body does. It's where your mind is that marks you! That's a great principle. Your mind is most important! That’s why the wife of Lot suffered that terrible fate; she was sentenced as an inhabitant of Sodom because that’s where her mind was.

Listening in Lithuania

It's like the Jews who had to leave Germany when Hitler came to power and it broke their heart because they loved Germany; they identified with the German culture and German lifestyle. Somebody once described to me a scene, a true scene. A German Jewish family had barely escaped with their lives from Hitler’s Germany over the border into Lithuania, into a border town in Lithuania. And now they were sitting on the eve of December the 25th listening to the radio as the strains of the festive carols came out of the radio from Berlin. And they were weeping tears of nostalgia, tears of sentiment for their Fatherland. “Ahh, in the good old days we sat on December the 24th in the evening and we listened enthralled to the ‘holy music’.” They identified with the land of their destroyers, with the land of their tormentors and persecutors and it broke their heart that they had to leave.

Instead of saying “What a wicked nation! What a filthy nation! A nation of murderers!” The Germans are worse than the cannibals in Africa – the cannibals at least only kill people when they’re hungry!

Instead of saying, “We are happy to be rid of them and we turn our faces away to a new future; we’ll face forward now with the Am Yisroel; we’ll turn our backs on these wicked gentiles who are murderers of our people and never look back;” instead of that, they couldn't tear out of their hearts the allegiance to their Fatherland. They looked back!

This slavish subjection to the gentile environment is what it was expected that Lot and his wife would sacrifice. That's why the malach said, “Don't look back!” It means that it’s not enough just to distance ourselves from the sinners; you can’t say, “I’m leaving; I’m running away from the wicked ones and that’s enough.” No! That’s far from enough. What Hakodosh Boruch Hu wants is that while we’re running away, we shouldn’t look back; we shouldn’t even want to look back.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a leading Torah scholar in New York died in 2001 at the age of 93. His books and tapes of hundreds of his lectures are familiar to English-speaking Jews around the globe. Leading rabbis such as Hevron Yeshiva Head Rabbi Shmuel Berenshtain and Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch eulogized him, and one said that Rabbi Miller was the "Avraham Avinu [Patriarch Abraham] of our time, in his fight against the prevailing misguided notions of the day" Rabbi Miller delivered 28-30 Torah lectures each week.

Credit for this article goes to Toras Avigdor, an organization dedicated to disseminating the Torah hashkafa of Rav Avigdor Miller ztz"l. Subscribe for our free content by sending an email to ey@torasavigdor.org, or visit our website.

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