Thursday, March 22, 2007

Salt vs. Honey: The Spiritual Taste Test

(by R. Dovid Gottlieb)

A short time after the passing of legendary film and Broadway star Hume Cronyn, family and friends gathered to memorialize his life. The most moving part of the evening occurred when the guests were surprisingly treated to a brief biographical video narrated by Cronyn himself.

Speaking over images from his long career, Mr. Cronyn described his basic love of acting. “I enjoy it. Why? Because it’s a lovely escape from the Hume Cronyn I have to live with twenty four hours a day.

This is a striking statement.

Click here to read moreIn addition to revealing a remarkable capacity for self-reflection, Cronyn’s observation candidly articulates a somewhat common human desire to hide from ones true self. While Mr. Cronyn was able to use the different roles that he played as a mask to hide behind, many of us utilize a different method: we hide behind the mask of social conformity.

It’s sad enough when this lack of individuality affects other parts of our lives, but it becomes even more tragic when this becomes a dominant motif in our religious lives.

There is an alternative model, however, which celebrates authentic self expression, and is highlighted by a fascinating contrast of halachos regarding – of all things – the Korban Minchah.

On the one hand we are told that any minchah, or meal offering, may not include leaven or honey (Vayikra 2:11). This pasuk implies that the basic ingredients of flour and oil must remain free from anything extra.

And yet, just two pesukim later we are told “ba’melach timlach,” that all menachos should be salted (2:13). In fact, the verse continues and further commands us that all sacrifices must include the addition of salt.

The question is two-fold: Why may we not add leaven or honey to the korban? And if we are commanded not to add ingredients, why must we add salt?

A number of classical meforshim offer symbolic explanations for the problem with leaven and honey, but most of these explanations don’t address the positive contribution of salt.

R. Mordechai Gifter (Pirkei Torah), on the other hand, offers a beautiful and unified explanation to both rules.

The problem with honey and leaven is that they are additives. They improve the taste or consistency of food by changing it. The external nature of the change they induce is the source of their prohibition.

Salt, on the other hand, preserves and enhances the natural flavor of food and this is the reason that we add it to korbanos.

[I am reminded of my beloved grandmother who takes well-deserved pride in her cooking. Add (a little) salt to her food? No problem. Add ketchup? Don’t even think about it!]

R. Gifter goes on to explain that these twin halachos do not merely govern what ingredients can be added to a sacrifice, but – more profoundly – serve as a model for spiritual expression and aspiration.

Symbolically, we are being taught that our service of and relationship with God shouldn’t be artificial mimicry of others, but a natural expression of our true inner selves. [For a similar idea, see the comments of the Sfas Emes, on the phrase (Vayikra 1:2) “adam ki yakriv mi’kem.”]

Obviously there is much about a halachic lifestyle which is objective and non-negotiable. No one is perfect and we all fall short at times. But this doesn’t – or at least shouldn’t – detract from our commitment to the binding nature of our obligation.

However, there is also large component of our religious life which is subjective and could fairly be described as more grey than either black or white. For example, on many issues there is a multiplicity of legitimate opinions and, as a result, some people or communities will choose to follow one opinion while others will follow an alternate approach.

And there are also many practices that aren’t mandated by strict halachah but are, nevertheless, observed by some people because they enhance their personal relationship with Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu.

I believe that it is in these situations – the all important grey areas – where it is so crucial that we internalize the lesson of the minchah.

What is right for one person or community may not be right for another. In those areas where there is a range of legitimate opinion or which can be honestly characterized as optional (divrei reshus), we must remember that “one size does NOT fit all.”

Doing, or not doing, something primarily because “that’s what he or she is doing” is the equivalent of adding honey to the korban. Perhaps it improves the taste but – ultimately – it’s artificial. And when it comes to matters of the soul, inyanei ruchniyus, artificiality simply has no place.

Rather than honey, it’s far better to add a little salt.

Subjective or optional choices should be made with the sincere intent of actualizing our unique potential and strengthening our personal relationship with the Ribbono Shel Olam.

The challenge of life is to improve – not hide from – who we are.

Remember: When it comes to avodas Hashem, there is no single recipe and salt is always sweeter than honey.

Apdapted from a drasha given at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, MD on Shabbos, Parshas Vayika, 5764.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More