Parashat Vayikra 5778

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayikra
Rabbi Bruce Alpert, ’11

Egg yolks, oil, water, flour, sugar and yeast.  For nearly twenty years I have been adding these ingredients to my bread machine on Friday morning.  When I return home in the afternoon, I have dough with which to braid and bake challah.

The bakers among you may notice that I have left out an ingredient; by far the smallest of all.  Yet that one teaspoon of salt is the difference between a challah that tastes rich and sweet and one that is poor and flat.

What got me thinking about challah and salt are the detailed descriptions of meal offerings and their preparation in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra.  I was struck particularly with this verse: “You shall season every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Leviticus 2:13).

This verse points me toward an understanding of something that perplexes me, not only about this parashah, but much of the book Vayikra.  This parashah goes into great detail concerning the offering of sacrifices: how they are slaughtered, their blood dashed about, their innards washed, their fatty parts burned up.  How can something that is so literally visceral leave me so cold?

Looking to the Rishonim, I find their commentaries only deepen my challenge.  Rashi speaks of a covenant God made with the waters of the sea for them to be offered in the tabernacle.  Salt, the residual of evaporated sea water, is the fulfillment of that covenant.  For Ramban, covenant is the salt of the world, by virtue of which it either comes into existence or is destroyed.

For me, both these commentaries make this subject all the more obtuse.  I have a hard enough time relating to tabernacles and priests, guilt offerings and peace offerings.  All this commentary on water and covenants merely adds another layer of abstraction to what is already distant and foreign.

But this much I do know: salt is what gives my bread taste.  So if God commands us to always add salt to our bread, it must be because God wants our bread to taste good.  This strikes me as the obvious purpose for the commandment.  And this purpose has its impact not to our intellect, but to our senses.

For many years, I have tried to read this parashah with my intellect: which types of offerings require which types of animals prepared in which manner.  Such a reading has always proved cold and unmoving.  But if I try to read this parashah through my senses, the picture is much different.  I see actions motivated by powerful emotions of peace, sin and guilt.  I feel the power of both life and death placed quite literally in our hands.  I see violent sights and I smell intoxicating aromas.  And in so doing, I am reminded that this faith of ours, which typically expresses itself in the intellectual activities of fixed prayer and study, is truly intended to be very tangible and very sensuous.

We are now in the weeks leading up to Judaism’s most tangible and sensuous of holidays.   Not relying on abstract notions of freedom or deliverance, what makes Pesach by far the most observed of the festivals are the sights, sounds and smells, the feelings and the tastes in which it is observed.  We actually taste slavery’s bitterness and sorrow’s tears.  We feel our joy diminish as our wine clings to our fingers and drips on to our plates.  Aromas trigger memories formed in childhood as do the sounds of our favorite tunes for Had Gadya and Adir Hu.

The message that I take from this parashah is the same one I take from the romance that engulfs my Pesach preparations: that Judaism is intended to appeal to our senses as much as it does to our intellect.  Indeed, it must do so.  As it expands our minds and deepens our understanding, it must also minister to us in the ways in which the sacrifices detailed in this parashah are intended.  It must answer our emotions and instill in us a sense of awe at life’s miraculousness and its fragility at our hands.  It must, like the salt in our bread, add the flavor and richness and depth sought from a life lived not only in the mind, but in the heart.
Rabbi Bruce Alpert is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT, and is the Chair of AJR’s Board of Trustees.