Vayikra: Mincha & Roses

In a 1912 speech in support of women’s voting rights, the labor union leader and feminist Rose Schneiderman popularized a phrase that would continue to inspire the labor and suffrage movements in the years to come:

What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art…The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.

Rose Schneiderman

Bread often serves as a symbol for basic sustenance and a rallying cry for labor and social movements. In their demands for fair wages and working conditions, workers call for changes that will allow them to access the necessities of life. Still, as Schneiderman’s words remind us, along with basic sustenance all people deserve to experience beauty and pleasure.

Bread, the staff of life, plays an important role in the Torah’s vision of service to God. Parshat Vayikra focuses its attention on the particulars of ritual offerings made in the Mishkan. The Torah describes a number of ritual options, from sacrifices of large animals to birds, and finally the mincha offering — an offering of flour baked into cakes.

In comparison with the other offerings, the mincha seems quite humble. Simple unleavened bread like these made with flour and oil would have been a staple food for many people, as they continue to be today in many parts of the world. This would certainly have been the most economically accessible. A simple offering of bread, the Torah tells us, is a worthy act of service.

Despite its simplicity, the instructions for the mincha offering include an important detail:

You shall season your every mincha offering with salt; you shall not omit from your mincha offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt. (Leviticus 2:13)

Why do the offerings made to God need to be thoroughly salted? The commentator Ibn Ezra explains that salting the offering enhances the taste — surely in any offering presented to God, we would want to bring something that would be at least as good as something we would give to a person we wish to honor.

According to the Zohar, the salt added to the offering is essential because “were it not for salt, the world could not bear the bitterness” (Vayechi, 66:666). The Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bretzlav remarks that the salt corresponds to the covenant with God, which “sweetens the bitterness and sorrow of earning a living.” (Likutei Mohoran, 23:2) For the Zohar and Rabbi Nachman, salt adds more than flavor; it makes the challenges of life easier to bear. Yes, we need the substance of the sacrifice itself — but even the simplest offering of bread we work so hard to earn merits the addition of flavor.

In labor organizing, the work for bread — ensuring that workers are able to meet basic needs for food, safety, housing, and dignity — is rightly the focus of organizing work. But as the Torah and our activist ancestors remind us, we need grain and salt. We need bread and roses.

To stand for human dignity means not only insisting on the right to basic survival needs, but the right to live fully — to experience joy, pleasure, love, friendship, beauty. These are not frivolous things, to be set aside until the “real work” of ensuring bread is complete. They are what gives life its ta’am — its flavor. Perhaps it is ironic, perhaps intentional that this word that in modern Hebrew means “flavor” refers to “meaning” or “significance” in rabbinic Hebrew. To stand for human dignity means not only insisting on the right to basic survival needs, but the right to live fully — to experience joy, pleasure, love, friendship, beauty. “Roses” give us the strength to keep working toward the security and sustenance of ourselves, our families, and our communities.

One of the unique roles that we can play as justice leaders is to uphold an expansive notion of human dignity that inspires us to reach beyond the minimum conditions needed for health and safety. We can affirm in every space we enter that the desire for more than mere scraping by is valid; that dreaming and working toward a world that enables thriving matters; that all people deserve time to rest and to enjoy the pleasures of this world. While we continue to work every day for the rights of all people to bread, we can extend a hand holding a rose as well.