The Curiosity of Lot's Wife
Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )
"He overturned these cities and the entire plain, with all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the soil. His wife gazed behind him and she became a pillar of salt" (Genesis, 19:25-26).
And she gazed: She sinned with salt, and she was struck through salt; he [Lot] said to her, "Give a little salt for these guests." She said, "You want to bring even this bad custom to this place?!" (Rashi, Sv.)
In the midst of the story of the destruction of Sodom, the Torah tells us of the tragic death of Lot's wife; that she turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at the destruction of Sodom. Rashi explains that she turned into salt because she acted cruelly with regards to salt when her husband asked her for salt to give to the guests. Rashi's explanation seems to give rise to a new question: according to the account in the Torah, the apparent reason for her death was that she looked back at Sodom, not because she didn't give salt to the guests. If her cruelty was the true reason for her death, then why was she punished when she looked back at Sodom? It could have happened any other time. It seems that there is some kind of link between her cruelty with regards to looking back at Sodom and not giving salt to the guests. What is the connection?
In order to understand this, it is necessary to understand what motivated her to look back at the destruction of Sodom. Interestingly, she was not the only person to gaze at this tragic event; Abraham also did, but different words are used to describe their looking. With regard to Lot's wife, the Torah uses the word, 'lehabit', which means to stare at something, whereas with regard to Abraham, the word used is, 'lehashkef' which implies looking that is based on deep thought. This is supported by the fact that the Hebrew word for an outlook on life is hashkafa, which comes from the same root word. Abraham's viewing of the destruction of Sodom was one that was full of contemplation. In this vein, the Rashbam writes that he was looking to see if there were ten righteous people in whose merit Sodom would be saved. Thus even in this time of destruction, Abraham's overflowing sense of kindness was apparent.
In contrast, the 'looking' of Lot's wife did not emanate from kindness, as demonstrated by her cruel behavior in the incident involving salt. Why was she looking? Perhaps she was simply looking for the sake of curiosity; not because she cared about the people being destroyed, but because she wanted to see what was happening to them. This in and of itself may well have been worthy of punishment, but it seems that the bizarre nature of her death came as a result of her previous callous actions with regards to salt. This demonstrated that she was not a caring person by any means, and that her 'looking' at the destruction of Sodom did not stem from any sense of caring, rather as a result of pure curiosity.
The curiosity of Lot's wife proved to be her undoing. This teaches us an important lesson about the attitude that we should develop towards the trait of curiosity. In the positive sense, curiosity causes a person to have an interest about the world and expand his horizons. However, if the curiosity is misapplied it can become damaging. Curiosity for the sake of itself at best can lead to a person wasting their time being overly concerned in other people's lives. At worst, it can lead to a considerable amount of negative speech, and involvement in unsavory matters. Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, in his commentary on the story of Lot's wife, observes that nowadays it has become common for people to delve into every detail of tragedies that take place. Learning too much about horrific events can have negative consequences, including causing excessive fear and even paranoia.
While it is fine to know about major news events, one should be careful not to cross the line between purposeful awareness and excessive interest in disagreeable affairs. The story of Lot's wife teaches us an important lesson about how and when it is appropriate to delve into the affairs of others.
1. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah, 50:4, 51:5 elaborates on her cruelty with regards to salt. When Lot invited the Angles to their home, Lot's wife was not very happy about her husband's generosity. She decided to incriminate him with the people of Sodom; when Lot asked her if she had any salt with which to add to the food that he was serving, she went around to her neighbors' homes, asking for salt that could be used to add to the food for the guests.
2. There are times when this form of looking has a negative connotation, as in Bereishit, 18;17, and sometimes it has a positive meaning, as in Devarim, 26:15, however the main significance in this context is that it a form of viewing that is not emanating from mere curiosity, rather it is a viewing that is done in a contemplative manner.
3. Bereishit, 19:28. See Seforno for a different explanation of why Avraham was looking there.
4. See Kli Yakar, 19:17 for his explanation of why Lot's wife looked back and why she was punished. This approach was suggested to Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, and he approved of it.
5. Heard from Rav Yechiel Jacobsen.