I hate restrictive diets, don’t you? I’ve been on my fair share of them: No sugar, no flour, no yeast, no dairy. No fun! Sometimes it’s necessary due to some health concern, sometimes for losing weight, but when I limit the variety of food in my daily routine, I get a bit grumpy. What makes those times in my life bearable is that which I am allowed to enjoy, and invariably, especially if I can’t enjoy sugar, at least I can enjoy salt.
Ah, but you’re on one of those “low sodium” diets, are you? I find that cutting sweets out of my diet is tolerable since there are so many savory foods I like. But take out the salt? I admire people who can stick to a low sodium regimen. I feel that salt is such a part of most of the other foods I enjoy that to take it away would be like taking away the essence of my enjoyment of eating.
Anyone on a low sodium diet can tell you how much salt is pervasive through our foods. It is an ingredient in practically every food. We cook with it, we season with it, we even boil water with it. But it is also a fundamental part of our bodily existence. Our bodies, and indeed all living creatures on our planet, need salt in order to function. It is in our chemical make-up. As we read in “The Book of Legends,” (in “Sefer Ha-aggadah”): “The world can live without wine, but the world cannot live without water. The world can live without pepper, but the world cannot live without salt.”
Salt is part of our life blood, but is also a useful mineral in other ways. For thousands of years, salt has been used as a natural preservative of food, especially meat. It is a vital part of our daily life, commonly found in the world around us, and yet we rarely acknowledge its role in our lives (save for those of us who need to be sensitive to how it affects our blood pressure!).
In this week’s Torah portion, Korakh, we read the following from Numbers 18:19:
All the sacred gifts (offerings) that the Israelites set aside for the Eternal I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt (B’rit Melakh Olam) before the Eternal for you and for your offspring as well.
An “Everlasting Covenant of Salt.” An odd term, no? I thought so myself in reading this passage. To begin, the word “salt” (the Hebrew, “Melakh”) appears rarely in the Torah—only eleven times. It is most often used in reference to the “Yam HaMelakh” or the “Salt Sea.” We know this body of water as the “Dead Sea,” for its salt content is so high it cannot sustain life, but in the Torah it is known as the “Salty Sea.”
When not discussing this geographical location, salt is referenced as a preservative, as in Exodus 30:35:
And you shall make of it incense, a perfume after the art of the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.
And in Leviticus 2:13:
And every meal-offering of yours shall you season with salt; neither shall you suffer the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your meal-offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.
Here we read of the “Covenant of Salt” once again. According to Rabbi Plaut of the Reform Movement:
In ancient times, as often today, agreements were sealed with a formal meal. To take salt together was a symbolic way of concluding a pact. The Bible therefore describes a solemn covenant as a “covenant of salt.”
Why would salt be a symbol of binding an agreement? As Rashi explains, salt is a symbol of something everlasting because, “salt does not decay.” As a consumable mineral, it is a substance which can be eaten, digested, excreted, and return to nature to be harvested once again.
In the book of Ezra 4:14, we read the expression of “eating [someone’s] salt” to mean to “enjoy one’s hospitality” or “entering that person’s service”. This second meaning gives rise to the latin term “sal” for salt, from which the word “salary” is derived, that which someone receives for work.
So salt is a symbol of permanence and of preservation. This salt used to preserve the offerings given in the Temple is a further reminder to us of the covenant between people and the Divine. When salt is shared at the table, it is a sign of unity between those partaking of the meal.
Let us consider now why the only other mention of salt in the Torah is one of the more colorful moments in Genesis. I speak of the punishment handed to Lot’s wife for looking back on the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gemorah. She is turned into a pillar of salt. Why this particular punishment? Rashi states:
She sinned with salt and she was punished with salt.
The Midrash elaborates that before Sodom and Gemorah were to be destroyed, she visited her neighbors under the pretense of borrowing salt, but actually she was revealing to her wicked neighbors Lot’s plan to escape God’s wrath by leaving the city.
Although this is an example of the punishment fitting the crime, I would like to suggest another reason. Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt as a very stark and lasting symbol of that which Lot and his family should embrace rather than the sin of the place they were fleeing. In effect, God was both punishing Lot’s wife and enlightening the line of Abraham that in looking toward a new future away from sin, they would be cleaving to a life filled with promise and would be preserved through time. Otherwise, Lot’s wife could have been struck dead, or even (as the fate of Korakh in this week’s Torah portion) been swallowed up by the earth. But no, she was turned into a sign—a pillar to be witnessed by her family of a future of promise, rather than a past filled with depravity.
The last mention of salt in the Torah is in Deuteronomy 29:23 which states:
And that the whole land thereof is brimstone, and salt, and a burning, that it is not sown, nor bear, nor any grass grows therein, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorah, Admah and Zeboim, which God overthrew in anger and in wrath.
The salt on the land here is like a scar, a tear shed by the Divine on the ground filled with salt echoing the sin and the sign of Lot’s wife.
Salt is all around us: In the oceans, in our foods, on our kitchen tables. It is so terribly common that we rarely consider what we would do without it. But the Torah teaches us through this “Covenant of Salt” of the power of the common to preserve and sustain. This reminds of other things in our lives vital to our well being but tend to be thought of as “common.”
The term, “Salt of the earth,” an expression originating from the Christian bible in Matthew 5:13, is used as a common English expression to indicate a person who is humble or lacking pretense. I would rather think of people as salt in the sense of the salting of the ancient sacrifices: The people around us preserve and sustain us. Their presence, their support, their love and understanding give us strength when we are weary. But where we sin is when we look past our neighbors and friends and do not see them for the salt that they are.
We go through life marking the special days in the lives of our loved ones—birthdays, anniversaries—but what of the other days? When some go above and beyond to aid us, we are gracious and thankful, but what of the times when the help of a daily routine of those closest to us becomes invisible? We laud celebrity and mourn its passing with great anguish, but how familiar are we with the lives of those in our own community? People as a resource are in sum total a treasure—the mighty and the weak, the rich and the poor, the leader and the follower, and all of us interrelated and interdependent.
We think very little of the crystalized condiment adorning the dinner table. We take it for granted, not appreciating the flavor, the sustaining quality, the preserving nature. We think very little of the humanity of those in traffic with us, serving us in restaurants, answering our phone calls, providing for us… Of those we know intimately—our friends and family, we are more in tune with their humanity, but even they can be more in our thoughts and our prayers. And there are those in our world, in our country, even in our community, who have no one, who know no one, who are in desperate need to connect and become part of something greater but have no venue through which to do so.
At the beginning of our worship this evening, we greeted those around us with a message of welcome and Sabbath peace. But this greeting is only the beginning. We fulfill the “Covenant of Salt” when we become more mindful of those around us, friend and stranger alike, and embrace them for the human beings they are. We walk in the ways of the Divine when we realize that it is not the highest or mightiest of human beings that make our lives richer but our fellow men and women who help make our world a better place in which to live. “The world can live without pepper, but the world cannot live without salt.” There will always be individuals who stand apart from the crowd, but the substance of humanity is about the whole of humanity.
May we arise this evening with eyes and hearts open. May we, beginning with those in this Sanctuary, accept each other within this room for the great human contributions each has to offer. May we become more mindful of the stranger and be inspired to make her our neighbor. May we look at the other not as an object but greet him as an equal. And then we will sit at the table of the Divine and the salt will preserve us and bind us as one human family.
Kein y’hi ratzon, may this be Divine will.