Over the past few years, my musings for parashat Vayikra have usually dealt
with the idea that these words teach us that Gd expects imperfection from
us, and provides a means for us to come to terms with that imperfection.
(That is not to say that Gd does not expect us to strive for as much
perfection as we can achieve, but that Gd recognizes that sometimes we all
fall short of the mark, often through no fault of our own.)
This year, as often happens, my reading of Vayikra produced some very
different random thoughts. I started thinking about gifts. All those gifts
we give-and generally I mean material ones, although non-material gifts can
raise the same issues I am about to raise-to our family, relatives, friends.
Many times, we give them automatically, with little thought. Other times, we
may put some thought into choosing a gift, but does that make it
meaningful - simply because we have put some effort into it.
It seems to me that what the Torah teaches us in parashat Vayikra is that we
need to always give the best gift we can, if it is to be meaningful. But
what is best? Torah tells us that, when we make offerings (i.e. gifts) to
Gd, as individuals, we must offer up unblemished animals. But what is it
that makes the unblemished animal a meaningful gift? One could argue that it
is economic value. An unblemished animal is of greater value, and is
therefore a greater personal sacrifice than a blemished one-right?
However-as none of us are experts on animal valuation, we have to ask if
unblemished animals were of greater value before or after Gd told us to
offer up unblemished ones. (Well, yes, there is some biblical evidence of
that-if we recall the story of Jacob and Laban and the spotted and unspotted
goats. But is that what Gd means by a blemish?)
But, wait a minute...couldn't a speckled or blemished animal be worth more
than an unblemished one? Maybe some seasons speckled goatskins were in
fashion, and other years pure white? Who knows. Maybe, at some point,
blemished animals were more valued than unblemished ones? Maybe the
blemishes were a sign, or maybe it meant those animals were, since not
purer, then maybe more active? Seems to me an unblemished animal must have
led a pretty couch potato life to remain unblemished.
Now, here's a funny thing. When it comes to free offerings to Gd,
individuals must offer unblemished animals. But the rules change for sin
offerings. Individuals must still offer animals without blemish. But, if the
offering is for the sin of the community, the Torah doesn't say it has to be
unblemished. Go figure that one out.
So, what does all this say to me about meaningful gifts? I'm not sure. It
would be easy to agree to a reading that says that a meaningful gift must be
a pure one, and one of value to the individual offering it. But what about
the recipient? In Vayikra, we get Gd's "registry" for acceptable gifts. Sort
of like people do for weddings. But, in this metaphor, how does the
"unblemished" part fit in? What is an unblemished gift to a friend or
Well, it's already clear to me that Gd puts gifts in several categories.
There are simply "thank you Gd gifts," and there are "gifts to ask for a
favor" (i.e. sacrifices of well-being), and then there are gifts to atone
for sins. When we give gifts to others, perhaps we need to classify them the
same way. Why are we giving them-because we appreciate them for who they
are? Because we want them to be nice to us? Because we wronged them and want
to ask forgiveness and make amends?
Are any of these types of gifts better than the other? I'd venture to say
not, from the textual evidence in Vayikra. Two chapters of thank yous, one
chapter of well-being offerings, and two chapters on guilt/sin offerings.
All three types of offerings are worth Gd elaborating thereupon.
I had intended the message of this musing to be: "give a meaningful
gift, one meant simply to be nice, and of pure nature (i.e. unblemished)"
However, at this point, the message has changed! I'm still struggling with
the "unblemished" part and what it means in terms of a gift. But I have come
to see that gifts given in love, or to ask for favor, or to redeem sin are
all worthwhile and meaningful gifts. Aha-that's where the "unblemished"
comes in. Metaphorically speaking, an unblemished gift is one in which the
giver's intentions are open, without blemish, known. That means when we give
a gift meant to atone, if we make sure the recipient knows it is for
atonement, then it is a meaningful gift. But if we hide our true intention,
and pretend to offer the gift not in atonement, or not in return for favor,
but simply as a "nice gesture", when it is not, then our gift is blemished,
and not a meaningful one.
We need to stop for a moment and see this from the recipient side for
second. Hey, all you recipients out there. Give the givers a break. It's OK
if they give you a gift for other than just to say "nice to know you." A
gift that says "I'm your spouse, and feel compelled to give you a gift" can
be a meaningful one. Let's not all be so quick to demean the gift because we
suspect the intent. Hubby buy you flowers after a big fight? Accept them
graciously, know that they are meant in atonement, and allow your spouse to
feel comfortable admitting that to you. Will the gift make everything ok?
Well, I don't see Gd offering any guarantees.
Which leads me to yet another revelation. We all have this perverted belief
that gifts have to be meaningful for the recipient. (Go back and read what I
wrote. I never said that the "meaningful" part applied to the recipient. You
just assumed that, as most of us do with our social conditioning.) No-gifts
serve the giver more than recipient, in most cases. After all, as the
prophets later told us, what need has Gd of sacrifices? Of burnt sheep and
goats and bulls? Of smelly incense or burning flour? Gd instructs the people
on how to give gifts for thank yous, well-being, and atonement because Gd
recognizes that we humans have a need that is only fulfilled by the act of
giving a gift. That need can differ from circumstance to circumstance, but
it is a real need. Sure, if I buy you flowers after a fight, I'm kinda
hoping you'll accept it as a sin offering and forgive me. But if that is the
only reason I offer it, it has little chance of helping me. I must offer it
because I genuinely feel bad that I have wronged you. The gift helps me. If
it is helpful to you, the recipient, as well, so much the better. But it is
the giver who truly benefits.
This is a very Jewish way of doing things. We treat death similarly.
are not for the dead, but for the living. Charity benefits the poor, it's
true, but most of all, charity makes us good people. Gives us good hearts.
Teaches us to follow Gd's commandments. Even charity given begrudgingly is
deemed worthwhile, though, according to Rambam, on a lower level. Similarly,
gifts given in obligation can be worthwhile. For when we meet an obligation,
we better ourselves.
This Shabbat, take some time to think about the gifts you give (and the ones
you receive.) Think about how you value them, how you select them, and how
honest you are when you give them. Once again, our ancestors prove their
wisdom, and Gd shows true understanding of Gd's creations. Offer up a thank
you gift to Gd for Gd's holy Torah, and Gd's gift of creation and life.
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