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Sunday, March 13, 2005

Vayikra 5765: G-d is in the Details

I am unfailingly attracted to the color olive green. I am also consistently drawn to tapestry. So when I saw a couch pillow in olive green tapestry, you’ll understand why I bought it on the spot.

Although this pillow has been in my house for a few years, I recently awoke from an afternoon nap with this pillow on my lap. And in that transition from sleeping to wakefulness, I noticed things in the olive green tapestry pillow I had never seen before. A basket of apples. A wheelbarrow filled with flowers. A house number. A rake standing next to an open door.

Parshat Vayikra can be like that. At first blush, it’s filled with so many details about the sacrificial system that it can all run together. But then one detail stands out. And the more we examine it, the more it reveals to us.

There is a detail in Vayikra on which I’d like to focus your attention. Acknowledging that you may have a negative visceral reaction, you are no doubt familiar with the concept of the sacrificial offering of animals on an altar. You may be less aware that, in certain cases, a sacrificial offering may be made from flour and oil. In this context, the detail to which I’d like to draw your attention is that every sacrificial offering, whether animal or flour and oil, must be accompanied by salt.

The more one studies the concept of salt in the Bible, the more details are revealed. For example, the medieval rabbinic commentator Rashi offers a reason why salt must accompany every sacrifice. According to Rashi, during the Six Days of Creation, G-d divided the Lower Waters from the Upper Waters in order to establish the heavens and the seas. Rashi says that the Lower Waters objected to this separation because they wanted to remain close to G-d. G-d consoled the Lower Waters by making a promise that, in the future, salt from the sea would be offered on the altar as part of every sacrifice. This is referred to as the Covenant of Salt.

As the quintessential food preservative, salt is a Biblical symbol of eternity and permanence. In rabbinic commentaries about Lot’s wife, the famous Pillar of Salt, it also a symbol of the care with which G-d chooses our punishments.

There is a concept in traditional Jewish thought called midda k'neged midda, which is generally translated as “measure for measure” but is best understood, in American idiom as “the punishment fits the crime”.

What was the midda k'neged midda aspect of G-d turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt? In other words, what did she do to deserve that?

Lot and his wife (whose name our traditional records as Edith, Edis or Irit) lived in Sodom and Gomorrah. The people there were profoundly hostile to visitors. However, as a result of having grown up as the nephew of the exemplary host, Avraham, Lot was a bit different than his neighbors and one day, he invited two guests into his home.

In response, Lot’s wife asked to borrow salt from her neighbors, thus subtly hinting at the presence of guests in her home. Some say that she wasn’t subtle at all but approached her neighbors by saying, “May I borrow some salt for our guests?” Since it was forbidden to host guests in Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife was aware that, by asking neighbors for salt, she was putting the lives of her husband’s guests into danger.

During the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, she famously looked back even after she was told not to. Her midda k'neged midda punishment was to be turned into a pillar of salt. Just as she sinned with salt, so she was punished with salt.

Some say that her pillar is destined to remain standing until the Messianic age. Her pillar never diminishes, no matter what the weather. Others say that everyday, animals lick the pillar of salt that is Lot’s wife until only her feet remain and every morning, she regenerates, serving as a constant reminder of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for, among other things, being stingy to guests.

Now that you’ve heard something of the story of Lot’s wife, don’t just sit there. Fill up your salt shakers and invite someone to join you for a Shabbat meal!

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