Parashat Vayikra: A Salty Paradox

There’s a certain paradox to salt: it has the power to elevate our meals to culinary heights, or bring them crashing to the kitchen floor.

Salt is best when we’re not aware of it. We only notice it when there’s too much or not enough. Too much, and food tastes sharp and potent. Too little, and it lacks umph. But the right amount, precisely balanced, doesn’t just make food taste better; according to food scientist Alton Brown, it “makes food taste more like itself.” This is why professional chefs obsess over the right amount of salt, seasoning at every step along the way. It’s a technique that most of us – with our less-refined taste buds – won’t ever be able to match.

This salty paradox isn’t limited just to the foods the mineral graces – it applies to us humans, as well: Too much salt intake may eventually kill us, but our bodies also depend on it to survive; if we don’t keep up our sodium levels, we will eventually die. So much power, all within a tiny grain of sodium chloride.

Our parasha this week is also aware of the power of salt. We read of God’s commandments regarding the elaborate sacrifices to be brought up to God. Among all the minutiae, there is one peculiar instruction:

וְכָל־קָרְבַּ֣ן מִנְחָתְךָ֮ בַּמֶּ֣לַח תִּמְלָח֒ וְלֹ֣א תַשְׁבִּ֗ית מֶ֚לַח בְּרִ֣ית אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ מֵעַ֖ל מִנְחָתֶ֑ךָ עַ֥ל כָּל־קָרְבָּנְךָ֖ תַּקְרִ֥יב מֶֽלַח׃

You shall season (salt) your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all of your offerings you must offer salt. (Lev 2:13)

Four times in one verse, God commands us to salt our offerings, as a symbol of the “salt of the covenant”? What is this melakh brit Eloheikhah – salt of the covenant? Of all the covenants we’ve encountered in the Torah, none of them have included the use of salt.

We all know that salt has a dualistic power: the power to preserve and the power to destroy; the power to kill and the power to maintain life. It turns out that some of our rabbis of old were also aware of this power.

Rabbeinu Bachya, a thirteenth century Spanish rabbi, brought his understanding of the workings of the natural world to his commentary on this verse from Vayikra. He knew that salt can both give flavour and preserve food, and also that land which has been salted will not grow. He understood basic chemistry – that salt requires the heat of the sun to evaporate water so that it can become usable.

Casting these observations in a mystical light, he wrote that salt has two competing forces within it, each one the opposite of the other: water and fire. He believed that these forces parallel the two divine elements upon which the world is sustained: God’s judgement – din, and God’s mercy – rachamim.

Din – God’s judgement – is like fire; it is salt upon the land. Like Noah’s Flood or the salty and sulfuric destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Torah is clear that human actions have consequences and that at times, God exercises judgement over humanity.

Rachamim – God’s mercy – is like water; it is the salt of preservation. Like God’s compassion toward the orphan, the poor, and the widow; or the redemption from Egypt and the parting of the salty waters of the sea, the Torah is also clear that our God is a merciful God, endlessly patient, and overflowing with love.

We want our relationship with God to be one balanced between din and rachamim. We need some judgement, so that we can discriminate the path God desires of us, and so that we can know that there is something at stake in our relationship with God. But we also crave God’s mercy, for we are only human beings – imperfect and struggling to do better in this world.

So why is salt symbol of our covenant with God? For Bachya, salt is a symbol of the competing forces of God’s judgement and mercy. Too much din, and we cannot survive. Too much rachamim, and there is no incentive to act according to God’s instructions.

Rabbeinu Bachya’s idea is beautiful, but how do we bring this lofty, mystical interpretation down to the salt-of-the-earth?

Perhaps we can think of salt as a symbol for how we live in relationship with those we hold most dear. All of our relationships – with our parents; our children; our friends – require certain things to sustain them: support, guidance, a hand to hold onto. Like the salt of the covenant, each of these has a dual nature: not enough guidance, and we lose our sense of place in the world. But too much, and we feel as though we are unable to chart our own path. Not enough handholding, and we may hamper developing empathy. But too much, and we risk becoming overbearing, helicopter-like.

Somewhere between these poles is the sweet spot – where those in a relationship feel as though they are both supported and nurtured, but also have freedom and agency.

Just as this is true in our own relationships, it is true for our covenantal relationship with God. When our ancestors brought forth salted sacrifices on the altars of old, they made a supreme declaration of the depth of their love of God. To seal those offerings with salt as a symbol of the covenant was a profound way of acknowledging those same competing forces inherent in any partnership – the forces of preservation and of destruction; of judgement, and of mercy.

The paradox of salt requires our attention to detail. I am inspired by great chefs, who constantly salt, then taste, then pause to reflect: “am I elevating this, or am I destroying it?” If we bring this care and love, then just like salt with food, our partnerships and covenants will bring out the best in each other, and our lives will be full of flavour.

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