The days are shortening, the heat seems to be wearing us and itself down, it’s Rosh Chodesh Elul and we know we’re in the countdown to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The end of year syndrome. And relentlessly we plod on through Moshe’s last exhortations to the people. But the content is changing a bit. He’s not talking so much about what was, with all the mistakes the children of Israel made, but rather about what will be when they enter the land. And one of the subjects is sacrifices, specifically for the three pilgrimage holidays.
These sacrifices have a special nature. They are supposed to engender and reflect joy, happiness. A word that hasn’t appeared in the first four books appears regularly here – v’samachta – and you shall be joyful.
We read about bringing the tithes. One tenth of the corn, wine, oil, and the firstlings of the herd and of the flock are all to be brought. But schlepping all that produce and livestock up to Jerusalem! The distances. The long dusty roads. So the people were allowed to take the money equivalent of the tithes, go on to the chosen place and then use the money to buy something to make them happy – wine, liquor – and then they could eat in joy with their family and the Levites.
This sounds great but something irks the obsessive soul. Let’s take another example from the very end of the description of the three pilgrimage holidays. Here are the three injunctions about bringing sacrifices for these holidays: You shall not come to me empty-handed. Each shall bring as he is able. It shall be in keeping with the blessing that God gave you.
Where’s the problem here? Don’t come empty-handed – that’s obvious. You have to bring a gift. But each shall bring whatever he wants? And it should be in keeping with the blessing you received from God? My orderly mind is aflutter.
My first reaction is this. Bringing whatever one wants raises specters of Bereshit. Cain and Abel each brought what he wanted, and God liked only one. The result was murder. Fratricide, in fact. In keeping with the blessing God gave you? Same story. One brought from the fields the other from the herds and again the result was murder.
But let’s assume that man has progressed from such infantile jealousy (he hasn’t but we will made believe). One view says that bringing from the blessing God gave you allows poor people to bring less than rich people. OK, that makes sense. In fact, the book of Vayikra is full of compulsory sacrifices in which poor people can bring a pigeon instead of a sheep if that’s all they can afford.
The real problem arises with the injunction to bring according to your personal ability מתנת ידך. This is a problem because it goes directly against all the laws of sacrifices and rituals we have read in the Torah until now.
If we look at the inauguration of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the desert, we read that the 12 princes of the 12 tribes each brought a gift and sacrifices that were identical to each other. Twelve times we read the gifts and sacrifices, word for word, even cantillation for cantillation. There is uniformity, equality, no wiggle room. This is the law. Do it!
The book of Vayikra states again and again, this is the law, do it. Sins, mistakes, birth, bodily discharges, discolorations of the skin, clothing or stones of the house – these are the steps for purification, the sacrifices and the atonements. Do them and bring them.
Yet here we are told, each person according to what his hand can offer – his abilities, each person according to the blessing from God. Rabbi Bradley Artson suggests that this means each person should bring his own unique gift, reflecting his own talents and passions. Moreover, the fact that each person brings his own unique gift is a reflection of the divine bounty that has imbued so many people with so many different abilities.
That’s so uplifting, but at the same time it seems to contradict an earlier sentence in the parsha. “Don’t do as we have been doing here, each person as he sees fit. This is a statement that appears three times or more in Judges, where the people are accused of taking religion into their own hands to the detriment of the Torah as a whole.
Elizabeth Sachs, who raises this dilemma, offers an interesting explanation. What we find here, she says, is a continuum of self-expression, from complete anarchy in the desert (each person for himself) to the healthy self-actualization of each bringing a gift according to one’s means and personal abilities, and in the background, the extreme form of rigid formalism where self-expression is not even an option. Remember 2 of Aharon’s sons who brought a sacrifice of their own – and were killed.
Where are we on this continuum? Are we confident enough to express ourselves according to our own inclinations, keeping in mind the injunctions we must adhere to? Do we really want to rid ourselves of all the injunctions that make our religion what it is? Do we need the strict formalism to ensure that our actions and our minds don’t wander too far afield?
These are some of the questions that the parsha raises, and hopefully by Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we will be able to find some answers for ourselves.