Tuesday, October 15, 2013
INSIGHTS IN RASHI: VAYEIRA – THE CURIOSITY OF LOT’S WIFE
Bereishis, 19:25-26 “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.” Rashi, Bereishis, 19:26: Sv. 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 in even this bad custom to this place?!” 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 the significance of why she turned into salt in particular; because she acted cruelly with regards to salt when her husband asked her for salt to give to the guests. However, 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 the cruelty in the area of salt was the true reason for her death, then why did it take place davke when she looked back at Sodom, it could have happened earlier or later. 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 answer this it is necessary to understand what motivated her to look back at the destruction Sodom. Interestingly, she was not the only person to gaze at this tragic event – Avraham Avinu also did so, 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 Avraham, the word used is, ‘lehashkef’- this is also translated as viewing, however, the root word indicates a 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. This indicates that Avraham’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, Avraham’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 then was she looking? It is possible to suggest that 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 revealed conclusively that her ‘looking’ at the destruction of Sodom did not stem from any sense of caring, rather as a result of pure curiosity. We have seen how 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. A person may think that this is a neutral trait, however, like all ‘neutral traits’ it seems that it can be applied in both positive and negative ways. In the positive sense, curiosity causes a person to have an interest about the world and expand his horizons. Indeed, the Chazon Ish zt”l said that one should look at the headlines of the news to be aware of what was going on in the world. 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 lashon hara and involvement in unsavory matters. Rav Shteinman shlita, 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. What is the Torah’s attitude to what people should spend their time looking into and discussing? In Parshas Massei the Torah discusses the case of the accidental murderer. He is in danger of being killed by the goel hadam, (a family member who wants to avenge the blood of his relative), until he flees to the city of refuge where he is safe. The Rabbis tell us that there were many signs to the city of refuge so that the murderer could find it quickly. In contrast, when people would go to the Beis HaMikdash (Temple) for the Three Foot festivals there were no signs to Jerusalem – surely there should be signs to that holy place. The answer is that HaShem wants people to have to ask others about the way to the Temple because He desires that discussion be geared to such a holy topic. In contrast, HaShem has no desire that the accidental murderer ask people the way because He does not want people discussing such an unsavory event. This teaches us that whilst it is fine to know the news, 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.