Talmud vs. Anna Akhmatova

Poetry as Midrash for 'Lot’s Wife'

By Jake Marmer

Published November 05, 2009.
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Those thus inclined will be hearing Parshat Vayera in shul this shabbos. Among the big stories inhabiting the text, the tale of Lot’s wife is allotted but a single sentence. She turns around to look at Sodom, and becomes a pillar of salt.

Midrash, which calls her Idit, provides different opinions about the events. One says that when the angelic guests appeared at her door, Lot’s wife did not want to receive them but, once forced into it by her husband, she went to her neighbors to borrow some salt for dinner. Thus the whole town found out she had guests, thus they came to lynch them, thus she turned into salt, as a punishment — salt for salt. Midrash has a wonderful way of rationalizing bad things that happen to people.

Another opinion states, that the phrase — “she turned into a pillar of salt” — does not refer to Idit, but rather to the city of Sodom. There is a linguistic ambiguity in the Hebrew, since in that language, inanimate objects — like people — are referred to as male and female. In terms of just deserts, Sodom seems to have been the “she” that deserved it most.

Neither midrash digs into the psychology of the motivation, emotions that drove Idit to turn. Fortunately, two Eastern European poetry divas, Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska and iconic Russian-Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova dig further into it. Here are their poems below:

Lot’s Wife
By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
So I wouldn’t have to keep staring at the righteous nape
of my husband Lot’s neck.
From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
he wouldn’t so much as hesitate.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Checking for pursuers.
Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind.
Our two daughters were already vanishing over the hilltop.
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor.
I looked back setting my bundle down.
I looked back not knowing where to set my foot.
Serpents appeared on my path,
spiders, field mice, baby vultures.
They were neither good nor evil now–every living thing
was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.
I looked back in desolation.
In shame because we had stolen away.
Wanting to cry out, to go home.
Or only when a sudden gust of wind
unbound my hair and lifted up my robe.
It seemed to me that they were watching from the walls of Sodom
and bursting into thunderous laughter again and again.
I looked back in anger.
To savor their terrible fate.
I looked back for all the reasons given above.
I looked back involuntarily.
It was only a rock that turned underfoot, growling at me.
It was a sudden crack that stopped me in my tracks.
A hamster on its hind paws tottered on the edge.
It was then we both glanced back.
No, no. I ran on,
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
I couldn’t breathe and spun around and around.
Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.
It’s not inconceivable that my eyes were open.
It’s possible I fell facing the city.

From “Poems New and Collected 1957-1997,” written by Wislawa Szymborska and translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Copyright © 1997 by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.

Lot’s Wife
By Anna Akhmatova
Translated by Max Hayward and Stanley Kunitz

And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
“It’s not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed.”

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound …
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

From “Poems of Akhmatova,” by Anna Akhmatova and translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. Published by Little, Brown & Co. © 1973 by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward.


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