The cards you’ve been dealt
Vayera - Genesis 18:1-22:24
After the angels lead Lot, his wife, and their two unmarried daughters from Sodom, one of the angels warns them, “Flee for your life! Do not look behind you nor stop anywhere on the plain, flee to the hills, lest you be swept away.” Yet, as the sulfurous fire rains down and destroys the cities, the Torah says, “Lot’s wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt.”
What was so terrible about looking back? Some traditional commentators suggest that looking back was dangerous because it would slow them down as they fled. But this is hardly compelling. After all, Lot and his wife left two married daughters and their families behind in Sodom. It is certainly understandable that they might look back to see if they were following behind or to see if there were other refugees who needed help.
Still, they were commanded not to look back, and when Mrs. Lot did, she was turned into a pillar of salt.
In the book Pardes Yosef, Rabbi Joseph Patznovsky (20th century, Poland) wrote:
“Now that Lot had been saved from the destruction of Sodom, he might have thought he was the most righteous person of the generation. He was therefore told: Flee for your life! Do not look behind you. Think of your soul — don’t look behind you, don’t consider the fact that you are more righteous than the people of Sodom. Flee to the hills — cast your eyes to the heavens, to the righteous people of the generation, and realize that you are among the least worthy of them, and then you will realize that your accomplishments are nothing.”
In other words, looking back was prohibited because it was a sign of conceit, of arrogance. Lot and his wife had no reason for pride, for the Torah says explicitly, “Thus it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the plain and annihilated the cities where Lot dwelt, God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval.” Lot was saved not for his own sake, but for Abraham’s.
There’s an important lesson here. Our world is full of disasters — natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, and tornadoes and man-made disasters like wars, terrorist attacks, and drunk drivers plowing into crowds of pedestrians. And whenever a disaster occurs, there is always the question, why was one person killed and another spared? We like to think there’s a logical reason, because if we can explain why, if we can link a person’s death or injury to something he did or failed to do, then we can protect ourselves.
But this is not the way the world works. Bad things happen to good people and, yes, good things happen to bad people.
The Talmud, in Moed Katan, puts it this way:
“Rava said: Length of life, children, and sustenance depend not on one’s merit, but on one’s mazal [luck]. Consider Rabbah and Rav Hisda. Both were completely righteous — when one prayed for rain, it came; when the other prayed for rain, it also came. Yet Rav Hisda lived to the age of 92, but Rabbah only to the age of 40. In Rav Hisda’s house, 60 wedding feasts were celebrated; in Rabbah’s house, 60 bereavements. In Rav Hisda’s house, there was bread of the finest flour even for dogs, and it went to waste; in Rabbah’s house, barley bread was for human beings, and even that was hardly to be had.”
Some people are born with brains, looks, money, and good health, and some are not — not because of what they do or do not deserve, but just because that’s the way things are. Yet just as it is human nature to blame others when things go wrong, we often try to claim credit for our successes when things are going well.
Certainly you can take credit for how you use your gifts, but you can’t take credit for the gifts themselves. Lot was told not to look back — don’t think that the fact that you were saved means that you are morally superior. Perhaps you simply had the good fortune to be born into the right family.
God gives each person gifts. Some people seem to have everything, while others have no more than the proverbial lump of coal. No one gets to choose to be born rich or smart or beautiful, nor does anyone choose to be born into ill health, poverty, or disability.
But — and this is what really matters — no one is judged on his or her opening hand. What counts is how you play the game, what you do with the cards you have been dealt.