How Sweet It Is

Traditional Jews do a yearly cycle of the first five books of the Bible. Each week, we publicly read a different Torah portion until the Pentateuch is completed, and then we begin anew. We have just reached the beginning of Leviticus, and some rabbis are nervous. Long sections about how much oil to use with different flour offerings leave some inexperienced clergy sermonically challenged. Action-packed narratives offer rabbis the meat-and-potatoes from which they prepare their homilies in anticipation of the Sabbath. The focus of the Bible's third book on Temple ritual ushers in a period of meatless Fridays, if you know what I mean.

The true believer, of course, knows of no boring verse in the Torah. Anything that G-d says is redolent with meaning and purpose. In the hands of great commentators, the most minute details of Leviticus come alive.

Here is one that is easy to miss. Speaking of flour offerings, the text nixes the addition of honey (Lev. 2:11). Two verses later, it demands the addition of salt. What is this supposed to tell us? Pouring pancake syrup on Divine waffles sounds far more appealing than pickling them. Are we to assume that the Temple priests had to watch their calories, but had no blood pressure problems?

We can expect something more profound than that. A great Jewish commentator of the past observed that honey and salt dance across the room from each other, moving in very different directions.

Try this thought experiment. Apply a bit of sugar to the mouth of a very young baby. Now try the same with some salt. Describe the facial expressions of the baby. Without trying this on a real baby (not recommended), we can imagine the child showing pleasure over the sugar, and grimacing at the salt. We enjoy sweetness; we're programmed that way.

Now try a different thought experiment. You are a pirate working the Barbary Coast. You remember that when you last left port you had taken two barrels aboard, and forgotten about them. One was full of honey; the other, of salt. You go down to the hold and open the barrels. What do you see?

The salt hasn't changed at all. It is valuable to you, because the next time you dock, you can get fresh meat, and use the salt to preserve it for the next months at sea. The honey, on the other hand, has turned to vinegar. You will quickly turn it into fish food.

The Torah tells us here that life is full of things that change their promise and utility. Some things are immediately attractive, but then they turn stale or sour, or putrid. We instinctively chase after them, only to be sorely disappointed later.

Other things have no appeal to us at all. Yet, over time, they turn out to be the most useful and most pleasure-providing experiences of our lives. People mock us when we spurn the honey for the salt, when we forego experiences that are immediately pleasurable in order to pursue a distant goal. Yet life—and especially the pursuit of connection with G-d—has a habit of showing us that its meretricious delights have a short shelf life, while the long-term preservatives provide much more meaning.

A Catholic colleague introduced me recently to the legacy of Frank Alarcon, who recently passed away at the age of 80. He had labored as a mail carrier in El Paso, but was drawn across the border to devote his life to the poorest of the poor—garbage pickers in Juarez. He didn't just minister to them—upon retirement he moved in with them, in a former garbage dump that was their only home. In the course of time, he was able to turn it into a mini-city, still incredibly poor, but with simple concrete housing, rather than bits of cardboard and plastic. He sunk his pension check into feeding the inhabitants, assisted by a small army of poor volunteers who prepared and dished out the food. He taught Bible, helped with homework, and gave thousands of people hope and dignity.

Frank literally lived among them, in one small bedroom in this community of the poorest and most vulnerable. When asked about his great sacrifice for the well-being of others, however, he was dismissive. "It sounds hard, but it's not," he says. "I sleep good. Yeah, I sleep really good."

Kind of a salty way of expressing things, perhaps. But Frank didn't need the artificial sweeteners that most of us spend our days pursuing. Chasing after the presence of G-d has its own rewards, and its own sweetness. It leads not to a sense of elevated self-denial, but to happiness and fulfillment.