It has been nearly two thousand years since our people were actively engaged in the Temple’s sacrifices which continue to be delineated in this week’s Torah reading, Tzav. Yet, our inability to practice does not mean we cannot take lessons from these ancient rituals.
Much of Tzav outlines the ritual of ordination for Aaron and his sons as they embrace the hereditary role of High Priest, and it is relative to this ritual that the midrash makes a fascinating observation. Aaron and his sons are instructed to bring a tenth of an ephah of fine flour as a meal offering for their ordination. This same ordination offering is to be brought by every subsequent High Priest for all time (Lev. 6:12-16). In the midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 8:4), Rabbi Levi connects this offering with the specifications for offerings that are given just paragraphs earlier. One tenth of an ephah of fine flour is also specified as a sin offering for the sinner who cannot afford two doves or pigeons, or a lamb or goat. Rabbi Levi says, “See how God cares for Israel’s money: If he cannot afford to bring cattle, he may bring sheep, and if he cannot afford sheep, he can bring a goat. If he cannot afford a goat, he may bring birds. If he cannot afford birds, he may bring flour.”
Rabbi Levi brings a powerful message about access to spiritual resources. God intends for everyone to have access to the sacrifices, so that everyone can attain forgiveness, contribute to the community, make contributions of thanksgiving and fulfill their vows to God. But, the choice of materials for the offering is not arbitrary. Only “if he cannot acquire” the more expensive offering may the inexpensive substitute be used. Each must give according to his ability or means, because God knows it is not much of a sacrifice if you haven’t given up your best and most valuable offering.
Finally, in the juxtaposition of the High Priest’s ordination offering with the identical poor person’s sin offering, we learn that the poor person’s smaller offering is as good as the offering that allows the highest leader of the spiritual community to take office. The use of the same offering gives credibility to the poor person’s sacrifice. It is the offering of one’s best, not the actual content of the offering that makes it acceptable.
Though we no longer have Temple sacrifices, we do make offerings to similar institutions in our community. Whether it is the congregation — the seat of ritual life, the Federation — the seat of communal resources, or other communal institutions, we should be inspired by the Torah’s principles. Our offerings reflect our priorities, and what is higher in priority than the spiritual connection that is made through participating in Jewish life? Our material contributions to Jewish institutions should reflect the most we can give, because it is only in giving our best that our offering achieves the spiritual dimension of sacrifice bringing us closer to God.
Rabbi Ari Vernon of the Central Agency for Jewish Education prepared this week’s Torah Portion.