Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 28 March 2020 / 3 Nisan 5780

Parshat Vayikra

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Unblemished Service

One of the first laws we learn about offerings is that the animal must be tamim — “whole.” An animal which has a defect — a “ba’al mum” — may not be brought to the altar. This includes an external defect that will not heal with time. Even though the animal may be healthy and hearty, a tiny defect such as a pierced eyelid or defective cartilage in the ear is sufficient to render the animal unfit.

Later we will learn of similar defects that disqualify a Kohen from serving in the Beit Hamidkash. What is the message conveyed by these criteria?

The prophet Malachi’s fiery condemnation of the offering of blind, lame and sick animals gives us a straightforward answer. (Malachi 1:8-12) Malachi censures the priests as representing the table of G-d as detestable and something of which one would not wish to partake. In their eyes, the Sanctuary did not deserve to receive the best and the freshest — the vitality that man has to offer. Instead, they degraded the Sanctuary to the level of a hospital, a home for the crippled, founded solely for those whose lives have been shipwrecked. To them, religion became a shelter for life’s castoffs, who can find no other place.

A similar rebuke is given by the prophet Hoshea, where the priests would await misfortune and grief of their “believers.” (Hoshea 10:5). It was not the joyous and happy ones, but the blind, the lame, and the weak who would go on pilgrimages to the house of G-d. To them, religion was a consolation for the suffering and the disadvantaged, and had little to contribute to a vibrant and active life.

Not so! Religion is not the opiate of the masses!

Our offerings must be whole, without blemish. We bring our complete (tamim) selves to the service of G-d. We turn to Him not only in distress, but also in joy; not only in illness, but also in health; not only in fear, but also in tranquility. Indeed, the active joyous and healthy state is the primary condition for our relationship with G-d!

In these trying days, where fear and illness has swept the entire globe, it is all too obvious Whose hands our lives are in. We turn to G-d, weakened by insecurity, panic, and illness. And we should. But when this pandemic subsides, please G-d, may it be speedily, may we remember that our primary service of G-d is with our full health and communal vibrancy.

Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 1:2

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