With the arrival of Parashat Vayikra, we are now in the parshiot of the korbanot, the sacrifices, which as moderns can sometimes feel a little difficult to relate to. I want to highlight one curious aspect of bringing korbanot that arises in the fifth chapter.
The Torah introduces the notion that there are times where a person cannot afford the required korban. Using the language of “lo tagia yado” (Lev. 5:7) or “lo tasig yado” (Lev. 5:11) – the Torah describes a person who is unable to afford or acquire the requisite korban. Since they cannot afford to sacrifice the prescribed animal, they bring a lesser animal instead. If they cannot lay out the funds or give up one of their own sheep, they offer birds. If they cannot even afford to bring birds, they instead gift a small portion of flour.
How are we to understand this? If the purpose of the korban is to effectuate some kind of metaphysical repentance or create a spiritual equilibrium in the world, due to the wrongs that have been committed, how is it possible just to change the value of the sacrifice? How is it possible to bring a different kind of animal, or not even an animal at all?
One way of reading the Torah is that there is an objective range within which is an acceptable form of giving – any of the prescribed actions will have the desired effect. Perhaps on a deeper level though, one might suggest that God does have a particular desired offering – but rather, cares about the one bringing the sacrifice. What can this person afford in their particular moment? What can they bring?
This possibility invites a beautiful subjectivity into the ritual-equation. Where is a person at in this moment? What can they do, with the resources that they have available to them, to make amends for their wrongdoing? The Torah is not interested in bankrupting people in their atonement process – rather, it meets them at their economic level.
I am drawn to the midrash in the Sifra which says “Rabbi Yehuda omer: chaviva mitzvah besha’ata” (Sifra Vayikra 19:1). God wants the mitzvah done at the right time, now. This is even more important than what the sacrifice brought.
This is such a powerful notion. Someone might think they should wait for a mitzvah, or an act of repentance – and say to themselves “Let me wait until I am more wealthy. Until I can afford it. Until I win the lottery. Until my business does well. Then I will try to make certain kinds of amends. Then I will go to the temple to bring my sacrifice.” The Torah directs the individual in an opposite way. While you may be hopeful about a future version of yourself – and what your capability may be, you are already a person, with your own relative ability, right at this very moment.
This powerful lesson tells us that, even in a world without the Mikdash (temple) or the Mishkan (tabernacle), what are the mitzvot that we can do right now? What is the amount I can give right now? What is the time dedication I can offer at this point in time? It is true, maybe one day I will be retired. I will be able to dedicate so much more time to volunteering, to charity, to Torah learning. But what can I do with this version of me, right now?
Perhaps it is an eighteen dollar donation. Perhaps it is just helping somebody across the street. Perhaps it is volunteering and giving back for one hour in a week or in a month or even once in a year. What can I offer of myself at this moment to help improve the world? To help give to my fellow Jews, to my fellow human beings? Let us not hold back, not wait for a better moment. Let’s act now.