Parashah for June 24, 2023
Torah Commentary by Bettijane Eisenpreis
“All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for Adonai, I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before Adonai for you and for your offspring as well. And the Lord said to Aaron: You shall, however, have no territorial share among them or own any portion in their midst; I am your portion and your share among the Israelites.“
Why does the Lord promise Aaron and his descendants that their portion — all the sacred gifts that the Israelites donate — shall be a “covenant of salt” for all time? Why salt? Why not gold or silver? Salt seems so ordinary; everybody has it daily or can get it easily. Even in this age of inflation, it’s not particularly expensive. What makes salt so special?
The commentators tell us that salt was widely used as a preservative, so a “covenant of salt,” would mean an everlasting covenant. In the scorching heat of the desert, food goes bad very quickly. When, contrary to God’s command, some of the Israelites tried to keep manna overnight, the manna spoiled. To this very day, in hot countries where electricity is unavailable or unreliable, food is often dried and salted to keep it edible. As a teenager visiting my great-aunt in Mobile, Alabama, I ate some eggs for breakfast and became violently ill. My aunt protested that she had purchased the eggs only the day before, and that the person who sold them to her had insisted they were “fresh yard eggs.” “Yard eggs” they may have been. But clearly, they were not “fresh” enough to eat.
Salt has been, and still is, an important way to preserve the goodness of food, and thus is a symbol of an eternal promise. But the story of Aaron and the priests, the Kohanim, has two sides, and the second is not as pleasant as the first. The priests are promised gifts: free food from the part of the sacrifice that doesn’t go up in smoke. This is their “covenant of salt” for all times. But that’s all they get — “no territorial share” or portion. Unlike the other Israelites, the 12 tribes, they will not get any part of the land, once they arrive in Canaan. Instead, Adonai tells them, “I am your portion and your share among the Israelites.”
The Book of Leviticus is devoted to spelling out laws regarding the priesthood. The priests dressed in elaborate garments and acted as intermediaries between God and the people. The rites of the Temple were in their hands and they served as physicians, lawyers and judges. But, in a time when ownership of land was a significant sign of wealth, the priestly classes did not own any land.
The “everlasting covenant of salt” did not last forever. With the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 of the Common Era, the priesthood was destroyed. Instead, Israel became “a kingdom of priests and a holy people.” Synagogues sprang up around the world, led by rabbis (the word rabbi means “teacher”) and lay leaders.
In the end, what should we make of the promise of an “everlasting covenant?” While the story gives a powerful example of God’s love for His people, like much of the Bible it cannot be taken literally. In the end, we must take it with a grain of salt.
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