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When a man… brings an offering to G-d… if one's offering is a burnt offering… he shall offer an unblemished male… he shall bring it voluntarily before G-d. He shall place his hand on the head of the burnt offering and it will be accepted to effect atonement for him (1:2-4).
This section of the Torah presents the laws of the various communal and private offerings in the Tabernacle (and later in the Temple). As R. Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, the root of the word korban is karav - to approach. Moreover, the name of G-d that is used in connection with offerings is Hashem - representing His attribute of mercy, as opposed to Elokim, which has the connotation of strict justice (Sifra). Hirsch develops this by pointing out that idolaters believed that animal offerings were needed to appease the anger of a judgmental, bloodthirsty god. The Torah, in contrast, tells us that the offerings are a means to draw closer to Hashem - the Merciful G-d.
The Torah repeatedly conveys the above message - that offerings are a way one brings oneself nearer to G-d. This is exemplified by the expression rayach nichoach lashem - 'a satisfying aroma to G-d' - that is used to describe the way G-d reacts to the offerings. As the Midrash (Sifra 4:9) puts it, the aroma of the offering going up in smoke on the Altar pleases G-d because 'I have spoken and My will has been done'.
This idea of 'I have spoken and My will has been done' is conveyed in several ways. Firstly, the actual offering must be of such a nature that it physically represents 'the best of the Creation' being recognized as such by Man - and returned by Man to his Creator in order to bring Man closer to Him. Therefore the animal must be slaughtered in a state of perfect health and physical condition (1:3 et al.).
Secondly, the offering must be spiritually perfect - it is not acceptable if it ever functioned as an object of idol worship, or if it physically damaged a person - for example, if it gored someone to death, but there was insufficient evidence to judicially kill the animal under the law stated in Ex. 21:28. (Talmud: Bechorot 41a, based on 1:2: see Rashi on that verse).
Thirdly, the offering is only acceptable if it indeed fulfils the Will of G-d. This is exemplified in the narrative of King Saul's sparing some of the Amalekites against specific orders from the Almighty through Samuel. Also, Saul did not destroy all the Amalekites' property as instructed, but he thought he could go one better by bringing the best of their animals as an offering to G-d. G-d's rejection of such a 'perfect' offering is exemplified by the following words:
Does G-d desire burnt offerings and peace offerings as much as obedience? …
Behold! Obedience is better than a feast offering; to heed is better than the fat of rams (Sam. I 15:22).
In addition, the person who brings the offering must do so with the right motives - namely to come close to G-d through serving him in this way. This idea is exemplified in the story of Cain and Abel:
Cain brought an offering to G-d from the fruits of the ground. Abel also brought (an offering) from the firstborn and choicest of his flocks. G-d turned to Abel and to his offering… (Gen. 4: 3-4).
From the subtle contrast between the simple description of Cain's offering and the more specific description of Abel's offering, the commentators (Ibn Ezra, Radak) derive that Cain's offering was from the inferior portions of the crop, whilst Abel only chose the best. Therefore Cain's offering was accepted and Cain's offering was not.
However the Kli Yakar (to 1:1) derives that Abel's offering was deficient in a one respect. For the text states that Abel also brought (an offering). He did not bring it solely to express gratitude to G-d for his successful cattle-breeding season. There was an element of social pressure involved: Cain brought an offering to G-d, so Abel felt that one also had to come from his direction.
This contrasts with the case of the poor person who brings the very best that he can afford - a bird offering instead of a bull, sheep, or goat. His only motive is to serve G-d and come closer to him. The Torah treats that situation with the highest respect: applying the maxim: 'whether he brings a lot or whether he brings a little - so long as he directs his heart sincerely to Heaven' (Sifra 9:7 - derived from 1:17).
A good friend recently got married. He told me that he and his wife were deeply touched by the wedding presents they received from their friends and family. One group of people pooled resources to buy them a microwave oven. Someone else gave them a challah cloth. From another friend came a beautifully personalized Birchat Habayit. It was not the actual value of the presents that brought joy to the couple. Rather it was the sensitivity and care shown by the guests to select items that would enhance the couple's home. As he put it - "Your presents make your presence felt in our home."
That seems to sum up the Torah attitude to offerings. The offerings are brought in a specific place - namely at G-d's 'home' on Earth - the place where His Presence was most intense - the Tabernacle, and later in the First and Second Temple. They are brought by the 'friends and family of the Almighty' (c.f. Deut. 14:1). They are His people (who - with one or two exceptions have strayed no further than sinning by accident), and those who wish to be associated with His teachings (c.f. Kings I 8:41-3). And when they are indeed genuine - in motive for bringing them as well as in form, they are a 'satisfying aroma to G-d'. He is indeed saying to His friends (i.e. those who do their best to serve Him though His other Mitzvot) - "Your presents (offerings) made your presence felt in My Home"…
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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Also by Jacob Solomon:
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