Parashat Korah: Aharon’s Respect for His Fellow Jews
The Torah in Parashat Korah delineates the twenty-four "Matenot Kehuna" – gifts which the Kohanim are to receive from the rest of the nation. After listing all the various gifts, G-d commands Moshe to tell Aharon that these gifts are a "Berit Melah Olam" – literally, "an eternal covenant of salt" (18:19).
Different approaches have been taken to explain the meaning of this difficult phrase. Rashi writes that just as G-d made a "covenant," so-to-speak, with salt, creating it such that it never spoils, similarly, He promised Aharon that his status of Kehuna will endure forever, eternally.
But there is also a deeper explanation.
The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (34a) teaches that when somebody is asked to lead the prayer service as the Hazzan, he should initially refuse. After he has been asked several times, however, he should not hesitate any longer, and should go lead the service. The Gemara comments that if a person rushes right away to serve as Hazzan without any hesitation, then he is comparable to food without salt. And if he refuses excessively, then he is comparable to food with too much salt. Just as food requires just the right amount of seasoning, as food with insufficient seasoning is bland, and food with excessive seasoning is too strong, similarly, religious life requires a perfect balance between humility and confidence. We must avoid both excessive arrogance and excessive humility. Thus, when we are invited to assume a public role, such as to lead the service in the synagogue, we must be both reluctant and willing, like a dish with the perfect amount of salt.
On the basis of this Halacha, the Sefat Emet (Rav Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905) suggests an explanation for G-d’s statement to Aharon that his status as Kohen is a "Berit Melah Olam." G-d was pronouncing that Aharon struck the perfect balance represented by salt. When the time came for him to serve as Kohen Gadol for the first time, he hesitated, until Moshe urged him to proceed to the altar and perform the service, at which he point he went ahead and performed his duties. This is in contrast to Moshe himself, who, when G-d appeared to him for the first time, at the burning bush, and commanded him to return to Egypt and lead the nation, repeatedly refused. The Rabbis teach that Moshe was to have become the nation’s Kohen Gadol, but because he persistently refused the mantle of leadership, this privilege was taken away from him. Aharon, on the other hand, maintained this delicate balance, as he initially refused but then stepped forward to accept the role assigned to him. And so he was told that his status as Kohen is a "Berit Melah Olam" – an enduring covenant, because he exhibited the quality of "salt," perfectly balancing humility and confidence.
Developing this point one step further, we might ask, why should a person initially refuse but then accept an invitation to serve as Hazzan? What mindset should lead one to at first refuse and then proceed to fill this role?
The answer is that one should initially refuse out of humility, recognizing his unworthiness for such a lofty role, but once he is assured that the Sibur (congregation) wants and needs him to assume this role, he should proceed with confidence, knowing that he brings with him the merit of the Sibur. This is the balance that we need to maintain. We must be humble and aware of our shortcomings, but we must have enough respect for our fellow Jews to firmly believe that with their merit, we are able to stand before G-d in prayer. Aharon was known for his deep love and respect for all his fellow Jews, regardless of their background. Pirkeh Abot famously describes Aharon as "a lover a peace, a pursuer of peace, a lover of people…" He loved and respected all people, and so he was worthy of the Kehuna, a role he assumed with the confidence he gained from his high esteem for the Sibur whom he was serving.
The Rama (Rav Moshe Isserles, Cracow, 1530-1572), in his glosses to the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 167:5), brings from earlier sources that it is proper to have salt on the table when reciting the Beracha over bread. Just as salt must be added to all the sacrifices, the Rama writes, salt should be placed on the table, which resembles the altar in the Bet Ha’mikdash. The Rama adds that placing salt on the table "protects from calamity." The commentators to the Shulhan Aruch explain that this remark is based on a passage in the Midrash stating that when people are sitting at the table waiting for everyone to wash their hands for the bread, the Satan prosecutes against them. We protect ourselves from the Satan’s efforts by having salt on the table.
In light of what we have seen, we can understand the meaning of this custom. Salt represents respect and esteem for all our fellow Jews. When people sit around the table waiting for each other, they are likely to entertain thoughts of hostility and resentment toward one another, thereby empowering the Satan to prosecute against us. We avoid this through "salt" – by maintaining our affection and respect for all our fellow Jews, no matter who they are, following the inspiring example set for us by Aharon Ha’kohen.