Witnessing Suffering

A new interpretation of the story of Lot’s wife: that bearing witness provokes her transformation into the pillar of salt. The question remains: How can we act with compassion and bear witness without becoming paralyzed or fixed?

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וַתַּבֵּ֥ט אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ מֵאַחֲרָ֑יו וַתְּהִ֖י נְצִ֥יב מֶֽלַח׃

And Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt.

Genesis 19:26

We often misread this verse and understand it as though Lot’s wife is actually turned by Divine punishment into a pillar of salt because of her disobedience. But, to the contrary, Lot’s wife—or Idit, as rabbinic tradition names her—becomes a pillar salt as a result of the experience of looking back.

Her name, from the root ’ed, is an allusion to the witness she bore. A rabbinic commentary says that what she saw, was the Shekhinah (the Divine presence), and one cannot see God’s presence and live. A less supernatural interpretation might be that Idit saw not the Shekhinah but shekhenim, her neighbors, and seeing their travail, was consumed in tears, becoming a pillar of salt.

This raises the complicated question of the role of witness, its necessity and its dangers. Lot, indifferent, refuses to bear witness, even ignoring the fact that two of his daughters and sons-in-law remained in the cities. Idit, in her compassion, bears witness and is paralyzed.

Our challenge today is to find the place between Idit and Lot—being able to witness and endure the pain of the present and move into a future of hope.

Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, and Director of the Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts Initiative at IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute. Co-founder of Women4Change, she is an award-winning author. Her latest book is Regina Persisted, An Untold Story.

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