Parshat Vayikra: The sweet and salty life

A deeper look into this week's Torah portion, Vayikra.

March 19, 2015 19:51
4 minute read.
Third Temple

A computer-generated rendition of the Third Temple. (photo credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)


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After we completed the Book of Exodus that deals with the exile to Egypt, the redemption from Egypt, reception of the Torah, and building the Mishkan – we make a sharp turn to the Book of Leviticus.

This book is markedly different from Exodus, mostly in that we will hardly find within it stories or descriptions of the life of the nation. Most of Leviticus deals with halachot, Jewish laws, pertaining to the Temple and sacrifices, and therefore it is termed “The Torah of the Kohanim” – the Torah of the priests and those who work in the Temple.

Despite this, the Book of Leviticus is read in the synagogue to the entire nation. There is also an ancient tradition in which young children starting to study Torah begin with Leviticus for several reasons, the most central of which is the Jewish concept that the Temple in Jerusalem is not an elitist place for the lofty group of priests, but rather a House meant for the entire nation.

The Temple was a spiritual center from which every person could absorb values which make life’s routines more transcendent. As the Prophet Isaiah stated in his eternal words, “For My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all the nations.” (Isaiah 56:7) The first Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus details the basic laws of the sacrifices sacrificed at the Temple.

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It includes two halachot that are clearly linked, but whose content and rationale do not relate only to the Temple, but also to the life of every person, even if he is living many years after the Temple stood in Jerusalem.

This is what we read in the parsha of Vayikra: “For you shall not cause to [go up in] smoke any leavening or any honey, [as] a fire offering to the Lord... You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices.” (Leviticus 2:11-13) These two halachot deal with the way in which the sacrifices should be seasoned, and they clearly express a negative attitude toward sweet and a positive one toward salty. Honey – no; salt – yes. The question is: Why? What is so bad about sweet flavors and good about salty? This question is even more perplexing in light of the fact that in other places in the Torah, we find a positive attitude toward sweet. Thus, for example, the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael, is described as the “Land of Milk and Honey,” and as a land where figs, grapes, pomegranates and dates grow – all very sweet fruit.

Many commentators throughout the generations have thought about this riddle. One of the most original explanations is found in Ha’amek Davar, the book written by the Natziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the rosh yeshiva of Volozhin in Russia in the 19th century).

Using both realistic and psychological perspectives, he distinguishes between sweet and salty flavors, with sweetness representing life’s enjoyment, attraction and temptation, while saltiness represents life which is challenging, demanding and has hardships but the results are satisfaction and significance.

In many crossroads in which man finds himself, he has the choice between taking the easy route, the “sweet” one which is enjoyable but meaningless to himself or society; and taking the rougher, “salty,” route, which is challenging and risky – but full of meaning and satisfaction, and beneficial to man and his surroundings.

This can be expressed, for example, regarding preservation of family loyalty. Even when temptation is great and “sweet,” the “salty” loyalty is that which provides a person with the stability and strength that are so crucial to life. This can be expressed also regarding standing up to pressure, when the “sweet” path might be to run away from responsibility, but the “salty” path is to make the effort and bring results.

This can be expressed regarding educating children, when it is easier and “sweeter” to leave them alone and forgo parental authority, but the “salty” educational effort leads to satisfaction and joy for the parents and the children.

The Torah is hinting to us that when a person brings a sacrifice, when a person wants to get closer to the source of his life, to the eternal significance that faith bequeaths to us, he must choose the more challenging and significant path, and not search for the sweetness and easy way out, losing out on spiritual and emotional gains.

Thus, in these two halachot that have not been actual for two thousand years due to there being no Temple, we find guidance for the daily life of anyone in the 21st century. As the Prophet Isaiah said: “And it shall be at the end of the days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be firmly established at the top of the mountains, and it shall be raised above the hills, and all the nations shall stream to it. And many peoples shall go, and they shall say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mount, to the house of the G-d of Jacob, and let Him teach us of His ways, and we will go in His paths,’ for out of Zion shall the Torah come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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