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Unsettling Portion Ends With Hope

June 4, 2013 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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Have you ever wondered why, when we repeat the motzi, the blessing over bread on Shabbat, we salt the challah? One answer is found in this week’s Torah portion, Korach. God speaks to Aaron and instructs him about the special duties of the priests. God says, “All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside … I give to you … as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before The Holy One for you and for your offspring as well.” 
Salt is essential to both human and animal life, and has been harvested and refined for human consumption since ancient times. Salt enhances the flavor of food, as well as preserving it. We have previously encountered salt in the Torah: In Parshah Vayikra, the people are instructed to “season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God.” What is the connection between salt and brit, covenant? 
Salting our food reminds us that every meal is sacred. When we are intentional about our eating, salting our food, thanking our Creator, acknowledging both the natural and the human energy that is embedded in every bite, we place ourselves in the cycle of growth and decay that is at the core of life. Salt, an essential element, harvested throughout history for human use, can be understood as emblematic of our dependence upon God for life and health. Salt, for its many curative and preservative qualities, becomes a symbol of our covenant with the Holy One.
Our ancestors understood the powerful connection between salt and life. This portion marks the half-way point in the book of Numbers. Some say that the book mirrors our wilderness trek, reflecting the twists and turns both of our ancestors’ physical journey and the changes in our peoples’ energy, focus, and attention.
Any of us who travel know both the exhilaration and the fatigue, the boredom and the impatience that are a part of every journey. The stress of traveling may fray tempers and try our patience. When we travel in a group, we may question the authority, the judgment and the skill of those who lead us. We want to move on, to arrive at our destination, to complete the journey. 
This portion narrates the rebellions that are the expression of our ancestors’ discontent as Korach, and then Datan and Abiram challenge Moses’ leadership. Moses, with God at his side, invites his challengers to a deadly contest to prove his leadership.
This unsettling portion concludes with hope: for a covenant that will last longer than the seemingly endless wandering, for an agreement that will not be undermined or undercut by the inevitable vagaries of experience, fatigue, conflict and anger. The brit melach, the covenant of salt that is introduced at the end of this portion, is made for all time and with all of the people.
And salt brings us back to the table, reminding us of the sacred altar, and inviting us to sanctify the spaces we create each time we sit down to share a meal with others. When we “break bread” with others, and perhaps sprinkle it with salt, can we put aside the differences that, if exacerbated, blind us to the essential humanity of another? Korach challenges us to recall and reclaim the cove­nant that bound our ancestors to God, to one another, and to the tradition that nurtured and sustained them.

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