March 27, 2020
Today’s world finds the notion of sacrifices primitive, archaic and a form of Divine service that is no longer necessary. Yet to the ancient, biblical world, nothing came more naturally than offering sacrifices to God. Cain and Abel, Noah and Abraham instinctively offered sacrifices to God, without being commanded to do so. This Shabbat, we begin the third book of the Torah, Leviticus and Parshat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26). The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban which was a mechanism for coming closer to God, an idea that is alluded to in its very name, coming from the root “karev”, to be close. The korban—whether offered as thanksgiving for our blessings, to revive our bond with God after separation caused by sin, or to mark special occasions both personal and national—always linked our physical beings to a transcendent God.
Our tradition teaches us that the essence of korbanot (plural of sacrifices) is the elevation and sanctification of our physical beings. Eating is transformed into a spiritual act, a way of connecting to God and with humanity. A korban is a barbecue with a spiritual angle to it. Wine and bread were often added to the festive meal. One might celebrate a business deal with friends, good food and drink at the Temple in Jerusalem. We would thereby acknowledge God’s guiding hand in our material success, and share our bounty with our fellow Jews.
Holiday time would bring all Jews together to celebrate with such delicacies as barbecued lamb on seder night. And those parts of the korban which were not to be eaten taught us than there must be limits to our pursuit of physical pleasures.
With the destruction of the Temple, the crucial experiential aspect of celebrating at the Temple was lost. Our Sages tried to recreate the Temple experience through our synagogues and our homes, representing both the communal and the private sacrifice. Through such activities as the ritual washing of hands, and more importantly, hosting needy guests, our tables are transformed into altars at which taking care of our most basic needs is a way of becoming closer to God.
Perhaps the most famous Temple practice that has found its way into our homes is putting salt on our bread. “And every meal offering you shall season with salt. Do not leave out the salt of your covenant with God – brit melach, from your meal offerings; on all your sacrifices you shall offer salt” (2:13). The Sefer Hachinuch (Spanish commentary – 13th century, Spain) explains simply that salt adds taste to food, and to offer a sacrifice lacking flavor would be inappropriate. In addition to the above symbolic meaning of salt, there is a historical lesson regarding salt to which the Torah alludes. “And his [Lot’s] wife looked behind him and she was turned into a pillar of salt” (Gen. 19:26). Sodom was a city in which it was illegal to help others; the Torah’s description of the Sodomite attack on Lot’s home because he hosted strangers is indicative of a way of life that had to be destroyed. Sodom was a place where “the people were wicked and sinful to God very much” (Gen. 13:13).
One cannot establish a relationship with God without developing one with our community in which we interact. It is for this reason that our prophets, time and time again, castigated the Jews for bringing meaningless sacrifices: sacrifices accompanied by continued oppression of the poor, corruption and an unwillingness to truly repent. God, our prophets tell us, despises such empty ritual and meaningless sacrifices.
The salting of our korbanot reminds us of the need to create a society based on the principles of righteousness and justice, the antithesis of Sodom. Jewish law states that after partaking of a meal, we must wash our hands to rid ourselves of “the salt of Sodom” (Talmud Chulin 105b). Our eating is elevated into a seudat mitzvah as we wash away the self-centeredness and smugness of Sodom, replacing it with concern for the welfare of our neighbors.
During these challenging times, our Torah portion reminds us that we each are making our own sacrifices, to protect both ourselves and our loved ones. We are also striving to reach out to our neighbors – please do not forget the goodness we are all capable of and together, we will be a stronger community when this pandemic ends. Let our actions be the salt of goodness and kindness; as we wash our hands, may we continue to remove the salt of viruses and hatred. Our offerings will be a blessing for good.