Thursday, June 29, 2006

Korach - The Salt of the Earth

Although this week’s parsha, named for what appears to be its main character, begins with Moshe and Korach, it actually ends with Aaron and the establishment of the eternal priesthood. Why does this shift take place? Perhaps the explanation lies in a small detail that appears in Bamidbar 18:19. God tells Aaron that in place of an inheritance of land to support themselves, the Levites are to be given everything that is set aside for tithing forever, and it is a brit melach olam, an eternal covenant of salt. This brit melach is mentioned only three times in the Torah: in Vayikra 2:13, in which the meal offering is first explained as not being offered with honey or leavening, and then continues, “And every sacrifice of your meal offering shall you season with salt; nor shall you allow the brit melach of your God to be lacking from your meal offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” The second mention is from this week’s parsha, “All the offerings of the holy things, which the people of Israel offer to the Lord, have I given you, and your sons and your daughters with you, by a statute forever; it is a brit melach forever before the Lord to you and to your seed with you,” and the third mention is from Divrei Hayamim 13:5, “Ought you not to know that the Lord God of Israel gave the kingdom over Israel to David forever, to him and to his children by a brit melach?”

What is the connection between these three things? The brit melach is eternal – it is a covenant that does not fade over time, it cannot be undone or superceded. Salt comes to symbolize eternality because of its preservative properties. In Vayikra, melach is opposed to chametz: chametz, leavening, is temporary: one’s fortunes are a wheel in the world that turns (T. Bavli Shabbat 151b). Salt, to the contrary, is a constant. It does not ferment; it is stable and preserves food against rot.

But the preserving properties of salt have other symbolism, as well. Salt, unlike leaven, and honey, doesn’t have any obvious effects. Honey sweetens, leaven puffs bread up with air. Our sages note, that salt, however, disappears into that which it is used on – you can’t see it. Moreover, in itself, it doesn’t taste like much, but it makes that to which it is added tasty. It is therefore a symbol of humility and service. In this way, salt is contrasted in particular to leaven, chametz, which symbolizes haughtiness – as we might say today, someone who is “puffed up with their own importance.”

But one of the most powerful statements about salt appears in the Talmud (Berachot 5a) which states, “The word ‘covenant’ is mentioned in connection with salt, and the word ‘covenant’ is mentioned in connection with sufferings: the word ‘covenant’ is mentioned in connection with salt, as it is written: Neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking. And the word ‘covenant’ is mentioned in connection with sufferings, as it is written: These are the words of the covenant. Even as in the covenant mentioned in connection with salt, the salt lends a sweet taste to the meat, so also in the covenant mentioned in connection with sufferings, the sufferings wash away all the sins of a man.”

It is instructive to notice that in fact, Aaron seems to exemplify precisely what the Talmud is telling us. Aaron not long ago lost two of his sons, and yet not bitter, but of all the characters of the Torah, he is known primarily for his sweetness. The rabbis called him “peacemaker,” and the midrash reiterates over and over his gentleness and kindness. Avot d’ rabbi Natan (12:3) says, “When Aaron went on his way and a wicked person encountered him, Aaron greeted him. The next day, that man wanted to commit a sin, but thought, “Woe is to me! How will I raise my eyes afterwards and look at Aaron? I am ashamed before him, for he greeted me.” It continues, “When two people quarreled Aaron went and sat down with one of them and said to him, “My son, know that your friend has said, ‘I am ashamed before him because I have sinned against him.’ ” Aaron would sit with him until he had dispelled the ill feeling from his heart. Then Aaron would go and sit with the other one and say to him, “Know that your friend is saying, ‘Woe is to me! How shall I raise my eyes and look at my friend? I am ashamed before him because I have sinned against him.’ ” Aaron would sit with him until he had dispelled the ill feeling from his heart. When the two friends later met, they embraced and kissed each other. Because of this, when Aaron died, it says: “All of Israel cried over Aaron for 30 days.”

While many commentators focus on the difference between Moshe and Korach: Moshe’s humility compared to the haughtiness of Korach, only a few notice that in fact, Moshe may well also have had some small blame against him – a few note that he did tshuvah (notice that when Korach accuses him, he falls on his face, an act of contrition, or at least appeasement). But even granted Moshe’s lesser level of haughtiness, or complete lack thereof, no one mistakes him for a warm and fuzzy kind of guy. Aaron, however, is. The Sifra (Shemini 1) even claims that Aaron never said to a person, “You have sinned”
One of the other effects that our sages noted from salt is that it shrinks that which it is placed upon. Aaron merited an eternal covenant because through that which he suffered, he was able to shrink himself, and through by doing so, he brought huge numbers of people to God and away from sin. Despite Rabbi Ismar Schorsch’s recent excoriation of touchy-feeliness, it seems that the tradition itself recognizes that there is a way in which eternity is often better promoted through human relationships than through other means.

In a certain sense, the covenant itself is a reflection on the family to whom it is given. If the way that the House of Levi relates to the world is through kindness, which made them so loved that “thousands in Israel were called by the name Aaron,” (Avot d’rabbi natan 12:3), then who could better stand a covenant which in giving up any inheritance of land, requires that family to rely on the gifts of others for their livelihood? What other family could be charged with bearing the sins of the entire people Israel – who better than the family which through their gentleness, drew people to Torah.

While Korach is a symbol of everything that can go wrong in how one approaches service to God and one’s people, Moshe turns out also not to be the model for us. Moshe, no mater how you slice him, is different than the rest of us. In theory, sure, anyone could aspire to being a Moshe, but in reality, the one who is really successful in bringing people together are not the prophets who speak face to face with God, but those who speak face to face with us. That is, the salt of the earth.

Crossposted to RadicalTorah

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