Saturday, September 19, 2009

Lamed Vovnik and Lot’s Wife

“But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.”

Gen 19:26

I am always bothered by the story of Lot’s wife. It seems to be invoked when we wish to condemn someone’s frailty, their lack of trust or love or inability to adhered to God’s command for them. I disagree. I would like to try to redeem Lot’s wife.

It seems to me significant that Lot’s wife, who has no name, is trailing behind her husband. They are leaving town, and they are going uphill. Should she not be walking ahead of him? Should he not be ushering her away from danger and helping her along to be sure of her safe passage? He has no fear, evidently, of her tripping or becoming weary, of her falling behind for any reason. No, he is hot on the heels of Abraham; he is high tailing it out of town. What if he were to become concerned about her? What if he were to think, to suspect that she had fallen, had mis-stepped or buckled under her burden? He could not look back to see her, could he? No the only way Lot can be sure of his wife, of her safety, of her rescue, of her future, of her courage in the face of this terrible test, is to take a place in line behind her.

I like to imagine that this is why men help women through a door ahead of them. I like to think it is why men hold the arms of women, because they are concerned- not for the weaker sex, I think there is plenty of evidence that we are not the weaker sex- but for their beloved. When the most precious thing you have is in peril, you keep it in sight of you. How many mothers let their children wander out of sight in a strange park? How many rich men go weeks without checking their bank accounts? Not just rich men, for that matter? How many times a day does a builder drive past his building? How often to lovers call from the road? How many times a day does a mother check on her sleeping child – or more tellingly, how often does she walk away?

Why does Lot walk in front? I think she lets him. We let people hurt us. We let people put us out of place. Not because we want to, but because to be cherished is not something that can be asked for. It is not a request you make of a lover, but a secret wish that is granted in the whispers of the night. We hope against hope, we hold the undeserving dream of being the most important thing to the person who is the most important thing. And when we are set aside, when we are put behind, when they put themselves first we are in a quandary. We want them to be first, certainly. We would put them first ourselves, but there is a moment of jealousy, jealousy for ourselves. Because what we want, what we really want, is for them to love us not as much as we love them, but more than they love themselves.

It’s not healthy, but it’s the truest test of love. Will you put yourself behind me out of love for me? Will you walk behind; risk the sight, accidental and tragic, out of the side of your eye, to be sure that I make it over the crest of the hill safely? Will you set aside your needs in favor of mine? Will you want me more than you want you? Will you miss your run to walk with me? Will you stop golfing and start skiing? Will you set aside your computer and sit on the porch – even if it’s cold?

But here’s the catch: you can’t resent it. You have to do it out of your whole heart, not because I asked for it, not because I invited you. You must give yourself away freely and willingly. If you do not, you will carry the weight of your resentment your whole life. I will be able to see the burden bending your shoulder. I will feel the urge in you to step away. I will know the end is impending in a moment which should be lived for the now. And that is not love, its martyrdom.

Lot’s wife walked last. She let the men lead her, she followed in their footsteps. In all the depictions I have seen of her, she is carrying a load on her back. She is a beast of burden, last on the trail. No one will know if she falls back but she will catch the men if they stumble. She has put them first on this most important path in their lives.

Why does she look back? I wonder. Perhaps she is thinking of the nine. There are nine, at least nine very good people remaining in Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham negotiated with God, he pointed out that it would be unfair to destroy them all if even ten were good. This always bothers me. If ten are good, let Abraham search them out and rescue them all. But Abraham only asks if there are ten, he does not say who they are, he does not rescue them. He rescues Lot. Was he one of the Righteous? I don’ think so, he let his wife drag behind, afraid, unsure, and ultimately frail. So let’s do our Bible math. We know there are at least ten and that Lot is not one.

But we also know that his wife is one. How? Because she lets him walk ahead of her? Possibly, but not necessarily. Because she is married to Lot? If he’s not a good one, she’s not made good by being married to him? She’s saved by proximity to Abraham, not her husband. No, we know she is good because she does turn back. In the end, God relents and shows mercy on an entire nation because some small number were good. God looked back, after the pronouncement, and felt pity. So did Lot’s wife, in the final moments before she bridged the top of the hill, look back. She pitied her neighbors, her family and her friends. She hoped for God to show kindness one more time. She hoped for mercy. We are asked to love our neighbor as ourselves. We. None of us, are perfect. We sin by act and omission, we sin in our hearts, and sin lingers on the doorsteps of our lips. And yet we forgive ourselves (too easily perhaps) and go on loving ourselves day after day. Lot’s wife loved her neighbors in this way. Her neighbors, the people who lived in the worst town in Creation. Flawed and frail and disappointing, she loved them as she loved herself, with indulgent and unswerving forgiveness.

This is how I know there were only nine good people left in Sodom and Gemmorah: Lot’s wife was one of the ten. When she walked out of town, she put her husband before her out of concern and respect, when she walked out of town, she still had hope of God’s mercy for the people, even the unholy ones, behind whom she had walked in her time there. When she walked out, she still had hope – faith - that things would change for the better. Lot’s wife loved unselfishly, she loved at her own risk. She loved perfectly and unconsciously. She put her husband’s calling ahead of her heart, she spared a moment in defiance of his command to love her neighbor as herself. And yet all of this is not the evidence that convinces me that Lot’s wife was really good. I know she was good because God turned her into salt.

According to Jewish tradition, salt is a food that never spoils and G-d made a covenant with salt at creation that it would not spoil and last indefinitely. The priestly tithes and the kingship of David are compared to the covenant of salt to show that they, too, are forever. Also, salt is considered to be a product of underground waters and G-d made a covenant with those waters during creation that they will be used for sacrifices in the Temple in the form of salt. Lot’s wife, whose name we do not know, whose absence brought the number of good people under the agreed upon minimum, Lot’s wife, who looked back in mercy and brought about destruction, was good because God made her eternal. In the eyes of God, frail and humble, selflessly loving and senselessly hopeful, Lot’s wife had value beyond gold. She became more real in that moment, she realized her essence. Salt of the earth, was Lots’ wife. Without her and her kind there is no flavor, there is no preservation, there is no covenantal water, no “forever and ever amen.” Lot’s wife was the 10th good person.

There is in modern Hasidism the concept of the Lamed Vovnik, the 36 “Righteous Ones.” They do not know who they are. They do not know one another. We as mortals do not know, really, who they are and they are in hiding. When one dies another is born. In one Midrash a town sneers at the wealthy miser on the hill all his life. After his death, the coffers of the local soup kitchen dry up. While there are 36 truly righteous, God promises to keep the world in balance. The Lamed Vovnik are said to emerge in the Talmud, but I believe they emerge in the Torah: with Lot’s wife. We never know her name but we know that without her, all of her world tipped into chaos. She loves selflessly, she loves absolutely and she loves unconsciously. And it is only after she is gone that we learn that she was Lamed Vovnik, one of the truly righteous. Perhaps we can only see true goodness in retrospect, when things are returned to their true essences.

Let us all make an effort to redeem Lot’s wife. She looked back, not because she was frail, but because she was essential. Let us all hope for the fate of Lot’s wife. Let us all hope to be the salt of the earth.

No comments: