Preserving our heritage

Preserving our heritage

In parshat Korach, we have yet another story of discontent in the wilderness. But unlike the previous accounts of whining and kvetching and last week’s story of the panic that greeted the report of the spies, this week we read about a direct challenge to the authority of Moses and Aaron, God’s chosen leaders.

Of course, God makes it absolutely clear that Korach’s self-serving attack on Moses is unacceptable — the earth opens to swallow up Korach and the other ringleaders, and the rest of the rebels are consumed by a heavenly fire. And if this were not clear enough, another miracle occurs when the flowering of Aaron’s staff confirms his position as God’s chosen priest.

Following these events, the rest of the parsha describes the division of labor between the kohanim (priests) and Levi’im (Levites) and the tithes that are to be given for their support. And after God tells Aaron what the kohanim will be given for their work, the Torah says, “It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt (brit melach) before the Lord for you and for your offspring as well.”

Why salt? Why this most common and ordinary seasoning? Today, if people think about salt at all, it’s often something they want to avoid to prevent high blood pressure. But in the ancient world, salt was something special. Salt was extremely valuable, sometimes even used as money. In fact, Roman soldiers received part of their pay as a regular ration of salt — sal in Latin — from which we get our word salary.

Salt was prized because it was the most effective food preservative available in antiquity. As Rashi explains, God made a covenant with Aaron with a thing that is wholesome and lasting and that keeps other things wholesome. Thus, brit melach, a covenant of salt, is permanent. Even after the destruction of the Holy Temple and the cessation of the korbanot — the animal sacrifices, all of which included a portion of salt — God’s covenant with Aaron and his descendants would remain unspoiled.

Today, all Jews, not just the kohanim, participate in the brit melach. We use salt zeiher l’mikdash, in remembrance of the Temple. We put it on the table and, after we say HaMotzi, we dip our bread in salt. In our day, our rabbis teach, our tables are like the altar, and we eat our meals at our own mikdash m’at, small sanctuary.

Our ancestors brought their korbanot to the Holy Temple to draw closer to the presence of God. When we sit at our tables, when we begin and end our meals with the appropriate blessings, when we speak words of Torah, then God considers it as if we had brought our korbanot to the Temple. And so, our everlasting covenant with God endures.

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