The Covenant of Salt

The “covenant of salt,” Rena Blumenthal writes, is the agreement that Jews will not only bear witness to suffering and destruction, but preserve memories of pain to teach to future generations.

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וְכָל־קָרְבַּ֣ן מִנְחָתְךָ֮ בַּמֶּ֣לַח תִּמְלָח֒ וְלֹ֣א תַשְׁבִּ֗ית מֶ֚לַח בְּרִ֣ית אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ מֵעַ֖ל מִנְחָתֶ֑ךָ עַ֥ל כָּל־קָרְבָּנְךָ֖ תַּקְרִ֥יב מֶֽלַח׃

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.    

Leviticus 2:13

כֹּ֣ל ׀ תְּרוּמֹ֣ת הַקֳּדָשִׁ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָרִ֥ימוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ לַֽיהוָה֒ נָתַ֣תִּֽי לְךָ֗ וּלְבָנֶ֧יךָ וְלִבְנֹתֶ֛יךָ אִתְּךָ֖ לְחָק־עוֹלָ֑ם בְּרִית֩ מֶ֨לַח עוֹלָ֥ם הִוא֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לְךָ֖ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ֥ אִתָּֽךְ׃

All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for YHVH 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 YHVH, for you and for your offspring as well.     

Numbers 18:19

We all know about the covenant with Noah, symbolized by the rainbow, and the covenant of Abraham, symbolized by circumcision.  But what is the “covenant of salt”?

I would like to suggest that the “covenant of salt” is a covenant of witness, and its symbol is Lot’s wife.

The destruction of Sodom was a horrifically violent and essentially unjust act.  How can an entire city – including infants and children – be irredeemably evil? Shortly before the slaughter, Abraham tells God that destroying the innocent along with the guilty is not what the “Judge of all the earth” should do.  And yet, the city is destroyed.

As if ashamed of the act, God’s angel commands the fleeing survivors to not look back at the destruction.  Only one of them rejects this command not to witness: Lot’s wife, who is instantly transformed into a pillar of salt.  

Salt is the stuff of tears, but it is also the substance which preserves.  As such, it is a fitting symbol for the sorrow, and the stubbornly preserved memory, of those who insist on looking back; those who insist on bearing witness. Pillars are monuments that help us remember something vital.  Lot’s wife is the pillar that reminds us to bear witness, no matter how painful the act.

Jews are the quintessential survivors, the elders of human history, and we know well the destructive power of humans and of God.  We do not turn away, we do not forget, and we do not let the world forget. We are Lot’s wife, the pillar of salty tears that preserves the memory of injustice.

Bearing witness is the foundation and impetus of the Jewish quest for justice. There is a midrash that says that Lot’s wife will stand as a pillar of salt “until the time the dead are brought to life” (Targum Yerushalmi).  

And so we salt our every offering: with memory, with tears, with determination, with salty humor and a salty zest for life; with enduring hope for the day when we will all wake to a just world. For only on that day we will indeed be as “the dead who are brought to life.”


Rena Blumenthal is a freelance rabbi based in New Paltz, New York.

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