Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi wrote this piece to share with colleagues in the Hillel world (and beyond) via Hillel International’s Office of Innovation.
I’ve been crying a lot these days. Many of you have been, too. From the increasingly distressing news, to the demands of homeschooling our young children, to mourning the loss of the senior year we had dreamed of for so long, much brings us to tears.
I have to admit, I wasn’t
very comforted when first I turned to this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Vayikra. Detailing the circumstances and
forms of the various sacrifices our people were commanded to bring to the altar
of the Temple, the parashah starts
right in with details for which animals to bring at which times, how they would
be slaughtered, and what type of expiation would be thereby attained.
Collective guilt, blood and sinew, the recognition that closeness requires
sacrifice: the truths contained in the priestly sacrifices seemed both too
distant and too close to home.
In this global crisis, there’s too much blaming, shaming, finger-pointing, and hoarding; and yet, we see also glimpses of collective responsibility, from sewing homemade masks to calling nursing home residents barred from welcoming in-person visitors. The porousness of our bodies confronts us everywhere we look; I could spin into despair, and then I hear my youngest singing, “Happy Birthday to Someone,” each and every time they wash their little hands, and I smile. On the tree-lined sidewalks of my Brooklyn street, as flowering trees begin to blossom, I find myself shuffling away from my neighbors; and then I recall with fear and gratitude the closeness to this disease of my friends and students and colleagues who are healthcare workers.
What a time to read of the sacrifices of our people—and their awe, which we understand so differently now—of our bodily fluids and the precarious barrier between life and death.
And then a particular
verse caught my eye:
וְכָל-קָרְבַּן מִנְחָתְךָ בַּמֶּלַח תִּמְלָח וְלֹא תַשְׁבִּית מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹהֶיךָ מֵעַל מִנְחָתֶךָ עַל כָּל-קָרְבָּנְךָ תַּקְרִיב מֶלַח
“You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you
shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with
all your offerings you must offer salt” (Vayirka
Immediately photos of
emptied grocery store shelves flashed in my mind. No milk. No flour. No bread.
No toilet paper. No disinfectant, or paper towels, or vinegar, or pasta, or
frozen vegetables, or medical masks, or latex gloves. Salt in plenty.
A precious preservative,
salt represents an everlasting covenant, a relationship between God and the
people that stands the test of time, as the Ramban notes. But there is another
meaning, and it comes from the story of creation.
In the beginning, all was
chaos, and the waters were united. It was not until the second day that God
“separated water from water” (B’reishit 1:6‒7).
Imagine how it felt for
those waters: united for the eye-blink of an eternity, before there was
anything at all, anything but God and the unformed void, there were waters,
confusedly one. Suddenly, God begins the great act of creation, and in that act
of creation, God made something new for the waters: distance, separation.
In what seemed to some a
moment, in what seemed to others an agonizingly slow few weeks as the COVID-19
virus spread across the globe, the human family faced a new and stark
separation. We tribal creatures have retreated to separate abodes, water
divided from water.
According to the Midrash, the inevitable consequence of this separation was…tears:
אָמַר רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה לֹא פֵּרְשׁוּ הַמַּיִם הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנִים אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּה
Berechyah said: “The waters below did not separate from those above except with
weeping” (B’reishit Rabbah 5:4).
Here it is: the salt.
According to the wise rabbis of our tradition, the salt we offer at the altar,
the salt that accompanies all our sacrifices, has its origins in the tears of
separation. The salt of the waters before creation, the waters that became sea
and sky, were salty tears of grief.
What does it mean, during
the COVID-19 pandemic, to season our offerings with salt? It means we bring our
tears to all that we give in this crisis, and that is okay. It means that what
connects us to God and to tradition and to the Jewish people, spread out as we
are and isolated in our individual homes, is not only the gifts we bring, but
our griefs and our disappointments as well.
Indeed, says the great
Torah commentator Rashi, when God saw the disappointment and sadness of the
lower waters, God decreed that the salt of the sea would forever be offered
upon the altar, linking what is below to what is above, what is mundane to what
It can be this way for
us, too. During this crisis, we can maintain our holy and life-giving distance,
and we can mourn the loss of closeness, community, and contact. We can
sacrifice what is needed, the “fat” of our material resources, and we can
season those offerings with our feelings of loss.
Our tradition demands much of us: no longer the precisely rendered fats and juices of bulls and rams and turtle-doves; instead, a daily, rhythmical, cyclical attention to the blessings (quotidian and extraordinary) that surround us, and a scrupulous quest to engage in practices ethical and collectively beneficial. In such times as these, the demands of tradition can ground us. But without the salt of our grief and disappointment, we risk being crushed under their enormity.
Vulnerability is frightening. And it is deeply human. From the Torah and from modern thinkers like Brene Brown, we can gain much from looking at our vulnerability as an offering we can make alongside our resilience, strength, and pragmatism (all of which we need right now).
Ask yourself today: What sacrifices have I made to benefit the
public good during this crisis? What sacrifices have I made to preserve my own
safety, the safety of those I love, or the safety of my neighbors and
Light a candle. Breathe
in for a count of four. Focus on a sacrifice you have made. Now breathe out for
a count of four. As you watch the flickering flame, as you see its smoke rise,
know that your sacrifices are linked to the sacrifices our people have made in
Ask yourself today: What offerings have I withheld from my
family, my friends, my community, at this time? How might I safely contribute
Have you forgotten what
talents and skills you possess? It’s easy, in times of high anxiety and
widespread fear, to focus on what we cannot do, on how powerless we might feel.
Imagine yourself, picture yourself, at your most skillful and competent. What
characterizes you at your best? Make a list of these attributes. Brainstorm one
action you might take to use that skill as a gift to others, whether they be
folks in your household or in the wider world.
And, finally, ask
yourself now: What griefs and
disappointments have seemed “too trivial” to voice during this crisis? While
it is true that this pandemic affects us differently, with very real and dire
unique consequences for the chronically ill, the disabled, the poor (the list
is far too long), we may also be holding on to grief unrecognized. I have
spoken with wedding couples blessed to have one another, and yet grieving the celebration
they have been forced to downsize or cancel. I have heard from students with
secure places to live and plenty of food, and yet grieving the commencement
ceremony they had pictured for four long years. Your griefs and disappointments
are real, and need not be placed on a scale of “worst” or “hardest.”
And so the Torah reminds us: make your sacrifices, for the sake of the whole people, but do not omit the salt from your offerings. Your grief has a place on the altar.
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, PhD, spent the first years of her rabbinate at New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. She is currently transitioning into freelance and other rabbinic work; learn more at rabbinikki.com.