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The Systems of the Jewish Year

The Poor Man’s Offering

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

In today’s parsha, we read about the “korban olah” (elevated or burnt offering). This has three forms, according to the economic status of the man who brings it. It may be an animal, from the man’s cattle of sheep (the Cadillac of burnt offerings). Or, if he cannot afford that, it could be a bird Finally, if he cannot afford even that, he may bring a “korban mincha” (meal offering), made of flour, oil and frankincense (a gum resin from a certain type of tree), baked on a griddle or in an oven, or fried in a pan. The interesting thing is that the other two types of offering are all burnt completely on the altar, but this, the cheapest offering, has the merit that, apart from a handful which is burnt, it is eaten by the Kohen Gadol and his sons. Why should this offering (the economy version) have this special privilege?

The Baal Ha-Turim explains that this is a form of command to the Kohen Gadol not to be contemptuous of such a humble offering. We can imagine how honored the bringer of this offering would feel, watching the Kohen Gadol himself, and his sons, sit down together just to eat the pancake which this man had prepared.

But there seems to be a problem with this explanation: why should the Kohen Gadol, of all people, be contemptuous of such an offering? He was probably the holiest man there, and, we would think, be the least likely to have contempt for any man’s offering, rich or poor. If any of us were to be at a kiddush presented by a poor man, would we laugh at his meagre offering? Of course not! More likely, we would be touched, realizing that, for him, even this was a big sacrifice. Even more so would the Kohen Gadol react, we might imagine.

The answer, I think, is this: it is precisely because of the Kohen Gadol’s holiness that he might look down on the korban mincha! He might very well think: “I know this man is poor, but if he or his child were sick, he wouldn’t get cheap medical advice! He’d beg or borrow enough money, somehow, to go to a good doctor! Why can’t he do the same in this case? After all, the purpose of this offering is to repair a breach between this man and G-d, caused by some sin. It should therefore have top priority!”

The fact is that the Kohen Gadol might be right about the ability of this man and his offering, but it is not, and must not, the job of the kohen to judge the devotion of the one who brought it. He cannot tell how much of a sacrifice it was for him to bring even this flour offering! If indeed, the man could have done better, that is for G-d to know, and to judge him. The Kohen Gadol must, in any case, treat this offering with the greatest respect, and show this respect by eating it in public with his sons.

Sometimes people become so bound up with their holiness and spirituality that they cannot concieve of the level of their fellowman if it is not exactly as their own. They forget how to judge other people reasonably.

A famous Gemara (in Shabbos) tells of how Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was forced to hide in a cave with his son for twelve years in order to escape from the Roman authorities, who wanted to kill him for criticizing them. They were able to survive in the cave because of a miracle: a carob tree and a stream both appeared in the cave, and provided them with sustenance. While in the cave, according to tradition, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai wrote his famous cabbalistic work, the Zohar. After twelve years, the prophet Eliyahu appeared to him and told him that the Emperor had died, so that he could safely leave the cave. He did so, but there was a problem: whatever or whomever he looked at, was burned to a frazzle! You can imagine the consternation this would cause.  Eventually a Heavenly voice said: “Is this why you left my cave, to destroy the world? Get back into your cave!” He returned to his cave and stayed there another twelve months, after which his laser vision seems to have vanished.

What are we to make of this story? I like the explanation of the Alter from Slobodka. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was so holy, and had reached such a high degree of spirituality in the cave, that he had no tolerance any more of the world around him. He could not tolerate, or understand, the fact that most people have to earn a living for a large part of their time. (According to this explanation, the fact that everyone and everything withered under his searing glare could be taken figuratively.) Because of this intolerance, he had to return to the cave until he was ready to accept the world around him.

If one is able to attain the spiritual level of the Kohen Gadol or Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, that is wonderful, but for most people this may not be the proper way for them to express their holiness. The goal of most people should be to integrate their Torah studies and activities with their daily lives, and not to separate themselves from the world, but to bring holiness into the world. And those who are fortunate enough to have attained a higher level of spirituality should not scorn or mock the efforts of these people, but treat them with the greatest respect.

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