Parson to Person: “A Pillar of Salt,” May 26, 2021

Last Sunday I delivered my sermon from Sanibel Island (off the Florida coast) while on vacation there. My sermon was on teardrops–and their place in many world religions–but it occurred to me when I got back that there was one example of a tear story that I left out (since there wasn’t enough time for it) but which I’d like to share with you now in this column. It concerns Lot’s wife in the Book of Genesis. We don’t know her name (women were often left unnamed in the Bible, like the names and number of Jesus’s sisters in the Gospels), but she is said to have been turned into a pillar of salt–and indeed, there is a stone formation of salt in Israel that legend says is that pillar. (I have a photo of it from my trip to Israel some years ago.) You see, Lot and his wife had befriended 3 strangers-who-turned-out-to-be-angels (“strangels”?) and were thus allowed to escape the destruction of the two cities. But, unfortunately, on their way out Lot’s wife turned to look back–and was immediately turned to salt.

“Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from out of the sky; and he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot’s wife behind him looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” (Genesis 19: 24-26)   Incidentally, the area where this happened shows evidence of seismic and volcanic activity, so it’s theorized that this story may have been created to explain why this formerly fertile land became desolate.

OK. So where’s the connection with tears, you ask?  Well, in the Jewish tradition there have always been stories and commentaries about particular verses in the Bible–much of it contained in what is called “Midrash” (Hebrew for “commentary’). But some modern Jewish women have gotten together to create their own “midrash,” and one of the stories that I have found moving is a story about Lot’s wife, written by women at a synagogue in San Diego, California. I can only summarize it here, but the gist of the story is that when “Tova” (yes, they gave her a name, from the Hebrew “tov,” meaning “good”)–when Tova was preparing to leave the city of Sodom, everything she packed seemed to remind her of the friends she would be leaving behind.  She couldn’t understand why her family was being spared, and none others. So as she was fleeing the city with her husband and daughters she felt something in her eye. And as she tried to brush it away, she felt the salty residue of her tears. “At that moment, Tova’s heart was so heavy with sadness for those who were left behind that she turned to look back one last time. God saw Tova and, knowing she could never be happy knowing she had survived while everyone else had been killed, changed her into a pillar of salt. For just as Tova’s tears evaporated leaving their salty residue, Tova’s spirit evaporated, leaving forever a monument…made from the condensation of Tova’s compassion.”

I’m sure some Orthodox Jews would disapprove of this new “midrash.” But, who knows, maybe this story will make it into a collection that will be read by some Jewish communities in the future. And perhaps it will be debated a century or two from now by a new generation of Jewish descendants, who will continue the tradition of creating new ways to understand old  scriptures. As for me, I find this new interpretation to be a more compassionate and refreshing version than the original Genesis story. So it is now a part of my “scripture.”  Maybe it will become a part of yours too.

peace and unrest,

tony