This week we begin the book of Leviticus. A friend of mine who coordinates Lay led Torah discussions at our minyan every Saturday morning has often noted that this is the hardest book of Torah to find discussion topics for. His point is well taken: Like water in the Sinai, the easily interpreted stories are few and far between in this sefer. Leviticus is mostly mitzvot, various laws centering on the priestly duties. This week starts with the instruction for various types of sacrifices
1. And the Lord called to Moses, and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying, 2. Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, If any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of the cattle, of the herd, and of the flock. 3. If his offering is a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord.
10. And if his offering is of the flocks, namely, of the sheep, or of the goats, for a burnt sacrifice; he shall bring a male without blemish.
14. And if the burnt sacrifice for his offering to the Lord is of birds, then he shall bring his offering of turtledoves, or of young pigeons.[Leviticus 1]
1. And when any will offer a meal offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour; and he shall pour oil upon it, and put frankincense on it;[Leviticus 2]
In the text, there is a successive list of procedures from the most to the least expensive offerings: Livestock, poultry, doves and pigeons, and finally flour. As contemporary Jews, such things still present us with issues of course since there are no burnt sacrifices anymore. This is of course not a new issue. On the 9th of Av in 70CE, the second temple was destroyed and with it any possibility of Temple sacrifices. Much of parshat Vayikra and the first few chapters of the book of Leviticus have been obsolete for 1900 years. Jews from the time of the destruction of the temple have been dealing with that issue.
One breakaway group of Jews, Christianity, was critical of the whole temple system to begin with. The aggadah of Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers, those who converted money into one of the permitted sacrifices above is only one example of the polemic against that system. The money changers were an integral part of the system, mandated by Torah to handle the problems of transporting animals far distances. Yet these merchants often abused their position by severely overcharging visitors, most especially poor women, to the temple for the necessary sacrifices.
A great rabbinic mind also got angry about the money changers, but he did something different.
It once happened in Jerusalem that the price of a pair of doves rose to a golden denar. said R. Simeon b. Gamaliel, by this sanctuary, I shall not go to sleep to-night before they cost but a [silver] denar! [K’ritot 8a]
Simeon B. Gamaliel then made a ruling that destroyed the demand for doves used for sacrifices, killing the market, the price of a pair of birds then dropped to quarter of a [silver] denar each.
Such abuses were only one problem for the circle which Shimon b. Gamaliel belonged to. Another was far more problematic. What to do when you no longer have somewhere to give an offering? Their answer, which forms a large basis of the Talmud, is to transform the offerings into something else. Elements found in the Talmud had already existed for centuries. Much were popular practice, as many found it so difficult to get to the Temple to give those offerings. Prayer, home ritual, charity, and observance of the laws of Torah replaced the Temple sacrifices.
As early as the Prophets, the actual act of giving sacrifices had its critics:
11. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? said the Lord; I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of male goats.[Isaiah 1]
19. Hear, O earth; behold, I will bring evil upon this people, the fruit of their thoughts, because they have not listened to my words, nor to my Torah, but have rejected it. 20. To what purpose comes to me incense from Sheba, and the sweet cane from a far country? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor are your sacrifices sweet to me. [Jeremiah 6]
The problem is not the sacrifice, but the intention it was given with, and the actions that follow it. Isaiah and Jeremiah, along with Asaph in Psalm 50, all point to the idea that God doesn’t want a sacrifice as some automatic, emotionless thing. One needs to follow the laws and ethics of Torah as well. The old cliché comes to mind: it’s the thought that counts. It’s the heartfelt intention of giving the gift to God, the kavvanah that is as important as the offering itself.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of gifting in my own life, and in a far more practical way. My sweetheart and I are serious gift givers, not just to each other but to everyone around us. We do often share our love with other in little things we give each other. I might give her one half of a his and hers matching set of pins for example. She gives me some expensive soap, I give her some books on biblical Hebrew. Some things cost nothing, and a gift comes from listening to the other after a very bad day, sometimes followed by a well needed neck rub. But we also get things for others. She always brings thing back to her office from her visits with me. When she met my family she brought gifts for my nieces and nephew. All of which was received with wide eyes of appreciation. When I am with my nephew, the most wonder gift I can give costs as much as a sheet of paper. I’ll fold him a paper airplane and he is thrilled beyond belief. The glow on his face is worth every second needed to fold that simple white sheet.
I think it is easy to confuse an offering with a bribe. A bribe has a goal in giving the gift. An offering’s only goal is to delight someone else. The delight of seeing someone delight in something is a high I think Sweetie and I would agree is like no other. It’s not about the cost, but the personal value of connection and sharing the joy. The pagan gods were bribed for favors. In that we are different. Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu wasn’t looking for bribes, but the message “I love you.” As the prophets very often remind everyone, they are offering God’s own creation and property to God – not much of a bribe. It’s a lot like bribing a king with his own money. It is the actions and intentions that count in the offering. God wants to hear a heartfelt “I love you” by following mitzvot in Torah. If one sings a song to the king, that’s a far more precious gift, coming from the heart. Since we cannot make a sacrifice any more, we sing Ashrei and Psalm 145. Sweetie and I say “I love you” with our little gifts and things we do for each other, and in that way we strengthen our relationship by delighting and acknowledging one another. God wants to be in the relationship with us. Offerings are about making good relationships, not about goals and outcomes.
God gave a sliding scale of offerings not that one could impress with the offerings but one could do the act of giving in a way that allowed everyone to participate. That was what got Shimon b. Gamaliel and others so upset. The greedy money changers prevented poor women from being in a relationship with God. Today we have to think differently of course. Charity is one form of offering to God, by making sure someone else can continue surviving. Prayer and home ritual have transformed the Temple service into something family and community find themselves in relationship to God and to each other. Vayikra may be obsolete in many ways, but under the surface, one can learn a lot about giving.
So, how do you give?