Introduction - In addition to the times and occasions
that we have already discussed, the mitzvot guide us to draw near God when we
have been engaged in certain important activities of life. Today’s discussion will center on many such activities, why
we might be drawn to make offerings because of them, and what all of these
ancient provisions might mean to us in our own lives and times.
1. Read Leviticus 3:1. 22:30
3:1 If the offering is a communal sacrifice of well-being, the one who offers the herd animal—whether it is male or female—must present a flawless specimen before the Lord.
22: 30 It must be eaten on the same day; you must not leave any of it until morning; I am the Lord.
Q1. This is the offering of peace, of thanks, really of wholeness and wellbeing. What’s it all about? What are its essential features? And how might we benefit from applying some of its elements in our own offerings?
These mitzvot concern what is commonly translated as the peace or the thanks offering. More accurately, it is the offering of wholeness or wellbeing. Subsequent verses in Leviticus 3 provide greater detail about this offering: it is voluntary; a portion is reserved for God; a portion is for the priests; and a portion is to be eaten by the offeror and guests. The traditional explanation of this offering was that it was to commemorate the fulfillment of a vow, to express thanksgiving, or simply to serve as a free-will offering.
What do you see as the rationale and/or cause for this offering? And why and how might we make such offerings in our own time?
(It could be made when a person becomes well from illness or returns home safely from a journey. More broadly, it could occasion our expressing gratitude for many other blessings as well.
We marry. We give birth. We have success in business or other activities of life. We pass special milestones in life. We fulfill vows. Sometimes, we may even join with others to promote wellbeing in our community or act in ways that spread peace or create wholeness. More generally, we may simply be grateful for life. In all these instances, we wish to express gratitude to the Source of all such blessings, along with those who help draw us near to God and serve as our life’s closest companions.
The manner of this offering feels familiar. We generally celebrate happy occasions or outcomes in life with meals, sometimes banquets. The difference with this offering is that we acknowledge most directly in our celebration that our good fortune owes significantly to God and that our service is significantly on behalf of God, rather than its being accidental, human-made, or mostly on our own behalf.
One could see multiple occasions for such offerings in our own time. I think in a way we had such an occasion when we completed our study in this class last year. Perhaps we’ll do it again this year. Wouldn’t the return of those doing missionary work be such an occasion? Or the successful completion of a major project in the church? Or the business or civic success of members of the church? Or the completion of service on a major church or civic project? Or the successful mediation of differences of groups within the church or our broader community and a return to harmony and peace?
The beauty of such voluntary offerings as zevach
shelamim is that there’s no limit to the occasions
for them other than either the number of such acts of good or the feelings of
gratitude for them! In effect, we say that when we live in the world in accord
with holiness or are the beneficiaries of it, we should return to sacred space
both to express gratitude to the Source of holiness and to dedicate ourselves
even further to living in the manner of our mission.)
2. Read Leviticus 5:1, 4-7; 4:13-14, 22-23, 27.
5: 1 If you sin: by not providing information after hearing a public solemn pledge even though you are a witness, knowing something, or having seen something so that you become liable to punishment; 2 or by touching some unclean thing—the dead body of an unclean wild animal, unclean livestock, or unclean swarming creature—but the fact goes unknown so that you become unclean and guilty of sin; 3 or by touching human uncleanness—any uncleanness that makes one unclean—and the fact goes unknown, but you later learn of it and become guilty of sin; 4 or by carelessly swearing to do something, whether bad or good—whatever one might swear carelessly—and the fact goes unknown, but you later learn of it and become guilty of sin concerning one of these things—
5 at that point, when you have become guilty of sin in one of these ways, you must confess how you have sinned 6 and bring to the Lord as compensation for the sin that was committed a female from the flock, either a sheep or goat, as a purification offering. The priest will then make reconciliation for you, to remove your sin.
7 If you can’t afford an animal from the flock, you can bring to the Lord as compensation for your sin two doves or two pigeons, one as a purification offering and the other as an entirely burned offering. 8 You will bring them to the priest, who will first present the one for the purification offering. He will pinch off its head at the back of its neck without splitting it. 9 Then he will sprinkle some of the blood of the purification offering on the side of the altar. The rest of the blood will be drained out at the base of the altar. It is a purification offering. 10 Then, with the second bird, the priest will perform an entirely burned offering according to the regulation. In this way, the priest will make reconciliation for you because of the sin you committed, and you will be forgiven.
11 If you cannot afford two doves or two pigeons, you can bring as the offering for your sin a tenth of an ephah of choice flour as a purification offering. You must not put any oil on it, nor any frankincense, because it is a purification offering.
4: 13 If it is the entire Israelite community that has done something wrong unintentionally and the deed escapes the assembly’s notice—but they’ve done something that shouldn’t be done in violation of the Lord’s commands, becoming guilty of sin. 14 once the sin that they committed becomes known, the assembly must present a bull from the herd as a purification offering. They will bring it before the meeting tent.
4: 22 If a leader sins by unintentionally breaking any of the commands of the Lord his God, doing something that shouldn’t be done, and becomes guilty of sin— 23 once the sin that he committed is made known to him -he must bring as his offering a flawless male goat.
4: 27 If any ordinary person sins unintentionally by breaking one of the Lord’s commands, doing something that shouldn’t be done, and becomes guilty of sin 28 once the sin they committed is made known to them—they must bring as their offering a flawless female goat because of the sin that was committed.
Q2. This is translated as the sin offering. After we explore what it traditionally involved, we’ll explore these questions: What might this mean to us? How might it inform our practice? And what do we think about how it might apply in the case of shortcomings in our own community, as well as on the part of our “priests” and leaders?
This relates to the offering called chatat, commonly translated as the sin offering.
A. What sort of wrongdoing might this be for, and what might it not be for? What’s behind the idea that upon straying we would want again to draw near to God? What might the offerings we bring on such occasions be? What desirable effect might they have?
(Traditionally, it’s been thought that this is for “unintentional” wrongdoing, in the sense that intentional wrongdoing requires more, the requisite punishment for such action as well as getting right with any persons harmed by such action.
Perhaps, also, it’s when we miss the mark, fall short in living, as to what we know to be God’s expectations of us. We sincerely confess, express regret, make things right with those hurt, and resolve not to repeat the error as we also make an offering in sacred space.
What a blessing this is. We need not permanently bear the weight of iniquity. God wants us back. We humankind are not perfect; we err. We do look back often and see error and often have regret for it. Often, we bury our feelings and/or twist and rationalize our error into something we try to forget or deny, or something we actually try to blame on others.
As we have learned, these mitzvot give us a path to acknowledge what we’ve done, confess, purge our feeling of error, make a heart of regret and return known to God, and seek in greater wholeness to return back more fully to God’s path. Perhaps the offering we bring of time and/or resources could be used to help us (and the ministers who help teach and guide us and others) in facilitating prayer and various ways of returning and living as God wishes for us.
Note the importance of confession. Chinuch makes the important point that through confession we show that we will not treat the “All-Seeing-Eye” of God like a non-seeing eye. In other words, confession goes beyond making us whole with others and endeavoring to be better and more careful the next time; it also recognizes God as present and sovereign.
B. This chatat offering could be brought by an individual, a priest, a leader, or the community generally. We’ve learned about its value to us as individuals. What might be its value with respect to these others who are also called upon to bring it when appropriate?
(First, as to the priests, this mitzvah helps us and our priests put aside the assumption that priests live error-free lives or that we need to pretend they do. What a burden such an assumption puts on the priest! Could it be that priests drift into deeper sinfulness because they feel pressured to hide what they’ve done or otherwise act as if they are mostly or always error-free?
We should unmask the pretense of priestly perfection and permit our clergy (as well as our other “priests,” such as the inner priests) to be released from the darkness of hidden errors. The priest should be able, with all of us, to confess and make offerings in drawing near to God when missing the mark. Isn’t it a greater act of holiness to repair and return than to pretend and cover up?
Aren’t the problem and the need just as real for our leaders? We generally won’t let our leaders truly admit error and maintain leadership status, unharmed in our esteem. Isn’t it too often the case that we let them do the faux mea culpa or punish them? Why should we be surprised that leaders so rarely admit error?
And as to the community, when was the last time you recall a community admitting error and taking clear and strong action to confess, restore, and return? Whether in religious, social, racial, or political groups, when error occurs, the response too often seems to be to ignore it, let it go and hope for the best, or blame someone else. I don’t think any of those responses are pleasing to God, any more so than when a community stands by without remorse or response to unsolved killings.
Chinuch on the bringing of a chatat offering by the Great Sanhedrin: “They will take to heart through the performance of this act, the lowliness of the errant beastly spirit, and the worthiness of the intelligent spirit, which is straight and pure. Thus, as a result of this purifying thought, they will forever be vigilant and successful in all their rulings.”
These ideas are why these mitzvot are a real gift from
3. Read Leviticus 7:1, 5:15-18, 6: 2-3, 6; Exodus 29:33
7: 1 This is the Instruction for the guilt offering: It is most holy.
5: 15 Whenever you commit wrongdoing, unintentionally sinning against any of the Lord’s holy things, you must bring to the Lord as your compensation a flawless ram from the flock, its value calculated in silver shekels according to the sanctuary’s shekel, as a compensation offering. 16 You will make amends for the way you have sinned against the holy thing: you will add one-fifth to its value and give it to the priest. Then the priest will make reconciliation for you with the ram for the guilt offering, and you will be forgiven. 17 If you sin by breaking any of the Lord’s commands, but without realizing it, doing something that shouldn’t be done, and then become guilty and liable to punishment, 18 you must bring a flawless ram from the flock, at the standard value, as a guilt offering to the priest. The priest will make reconciliation for you for the unintentional fault that you committed, even though you didn’t realize it, and you will be forgiven.
6: 2 If you sin: by acting unfaithfully against the Lord; by deceiving a fellow citizen concerning a deposit or pledged property; by cheating a fellow citizen through robbery; 3 or, though you’ve found lost property, you lie about it;or by swearing falsely about anything that someone might do and so sin, 4 at that point, once you have sinned and become guilty of sin, 6 You must bring to the priest as your compensation to the Lord a flawless ram from the flock at the standard value as a guilt offering.
Q3. This is known as the guilt offering. After becoming more familiar with its elements, we’ll explore this question: What else does this add to our understanding of offerings that we are blessed to be able to bring? Of what relevance and use is it to us in our own times?
These are the mitzvot that guide as to the asham offering, generally called the guilt offering. There is some uncertainty and overlap between this offering and chatat. In fact, technically, it appears in many instances to be an offering brought as a result of wrongdoing close in nature to what we just discussed, though perhaps somewhat worse. But, from the text, can you detect the aim of this offering and suggest a more universal purpose both offerings together might serve?
(It appears that while chatat effects a purification of sorts from the sin committed and the wrong done that are typically unintentional, asham repairs or ransoms the wrongdoer in certain ways from the guilt the wrongdoer may bear as a result of a sin that may have been intentional and more serious, even if we’re uncertain about certain aspects of what we did.
Asham is especially important if we feel we’ve done wrong but are uncertain of it and its impact. So, instead of pretending we have no guilt or storing up the guilt we feel and expressing it in numerous unhealthy ways that can be rather devastating, we have a healthier and more valuable means here for dealing with certain consequences of our errors.
As a result of these various offerings, we have a Divinely lit path for dealing with much of our waywardness. The steps involve recognition, confession, righting the wrongs we’ve done others, then drawing near God with prayer and offerings, supporting our priests who help us draw near, and then feeling shalom from God in our going forward in our lives.
How much manifestly better off our mental and
spiritual health would be, as well as our behavior toward ourselves and others,
if we could incorporate these mitzvot in some meaningful way in our lives. Indeed
how much closer to holiness (and how much closer to living out the two great
commandments) we would be, if we were to do so.)
4. Read Numbers 15:20-21, 18:15. Exodus 13:2, 23:19. Deuteronomy 18:3-4, Exodus 34:20, Deuteronomy 12: 17-18
15:20 You will present a gift offering from the first bread you bake just like you present a gift offering from the threshing floor. 21 You will give a gift offering from the first bread you bake for all time.
18: 15 Any oldest male from the womb of any living thing that is presented to the Lord, whether human or animal, will be yours. However, you will redeem the oldest males of humans and of unclean animals.
Exodus 13: 2 The Lord said to Moses: 2 Dedicate to me all your oldest children. Each first offspring from any Israelite womb belongs to me, whether human or animal.
Exodus 23:19 Bring the best of your land’s early produce to the Lord your God’s temple.
Deuteronomy 18: 3 Now this is what the priests may keep from the people’s sacrifices of oxen or sheep: They must give the priest the shoulder, the jaws, and the stomach. 4 You must also give the priest the first portions of your grain, wine, and oil, and the first of your sheep’s shearing.
Exodus 34:20 But a donkey’s oldest offspring you may redeem with a sheep. Or if you don’t redeem it, you must break its neck. You should redeem all of your oldest sons.
Deuteronomy 12: 17 Within your cities you are not allowed to eat any of the following: your tenth-part gifts of grain, wine, and oil; the oldest offspring of your herds and flocks; any of the payments you have solemnly promised; your spontaneous gifts or your contributions. 18 Only in the presence of the Lord your God, at the location the Lord your God selects, can you eat these things—that holds true for you, your son and daughter, your male and female servant, and the Levite who lives in your city. Then celebrate all you have done in the Lord your God’s presence.
Q4. Why would we be expected to redeem a first-born human being and offer up of the first-born animals and the first fruits? How might we do this in our modern times and lives? And how would doing this affect our relationship with God and others?
A. There might be a link between these mitzvot and ancient practices of offering up the first-born to God. There certainly seems to be an echo of that night of our redemption from Egypt. While the Egyptians who were contemptuous of God literally paid with their first-born, we feel bound in our free choice to be yoked to God to redeem, through offerings on behalf of, our first-born.
Why? Our sages say the first-born are the strongest or best of our production. The first-born are surely the first experience we have personally of the miracle of creation. Will birth occur? Will life emerge? Will the land - dead from winter - grow living crops? Will an animal or human being give birth for the first time? This first life is our most tangible first knowledge of the work of the Creator. We consecrate our first-born and first fruits to acknowledge our understanding and gratitude for the miracle of creation that God regularly performs in our lives and in our world. Chinuch: “We acknowledge our Creator upon benefiting from the blessing with which He has blessed us.”
Isn’t this manifest as well in those ideas and things we create for the first time that represent miracles of the intellect and the spirit that are also God’s gifts to us? When a person brings forth an idea - whether religious, scientific, artistic, governmental policy, commercial, or other - that person must be inspired to ask: “where in the world did this come from?!” Does this creation involve our own imagination, talent, and skill, as surely does the farmer’s with agricultural techniques? Yes, indeed. But people of faith understand that the Source of all blessings is behind all this, fundamentally responsible and due our gratitude.
Chinuch puts it this way: “A person has nothing in this world other than what God apportions to each of us in His kindness….After a person has invested much effort in his worldly pursuits, and has finally arrived at the moment when his efforts have borne fruit, at which point the first of his fruit is surely as beloved to him as the pupil of his eye, he immediately offers it to the Holy One, blessed be He.”
Also: this lets “the fulfillment of His command supersede our personal joy upon the ripening of our crop.”
B. We could and should make our own offerings today. Examples might include a contribution to our modern-day priests or our places of worship for nurturing our lives and our creations, a commitment of service, or, in the case of our children, a dedication to teach the child of the special blessing and purpose of his/her birth.
Further, as with first fruits and crops, we take a portion of the yield of the first profits or other yield of our first creations and make suitable offerings of them. This could also be first dollars of our paychecks, our allowance, or our interest and dividends.
We could even make a special ceremony out of the first fruits of a business or other enterprise, not as a tribute to ourselves as is typically done, but as a tribute to God, those who serve us with God, those with whom we work, and those whom we serve.
As Chinuch says: “Through this remembrance of God and acceptance of His sovereignty, by following his mitzvah at a time that might otherwise be used for personal celebration,…we will be worthy of further blessing, and our produce will be blessed.”
C. It is crucial to note that these offerings are to be made and consumed in sacred space. As we begin to close out our discussion of sacred space, it is timely for us to be reminded again of its importance. Sacred space is that space where we draw near to God to strengthen our mission to be holy and bring holiness in the world. By understanding that the Source of our blessings is God and commemorating that understanding with these offerings in sacred space, we both support sacred space and further its role in promoting the ways we live in the broader world. Indeed, by commemorating our work in the world in these ways, we extend holiness to that work.
Let’s remember that the call for first fruits that we just read from Deuteronomy comes right after Moses’ recitation of God’s promise of the land. How beautiful is that? In other words, the truths we’ve just been discussing regarding the Ultimate source of our blessings and our proper acknowledgement of that Source through gratitude, prayer, and service are primary to our living in God’s land of promise.)