The parashah spells out the details of the sacrifices that were to be offered in the sanctuary.
In Hebrew a sacrifice is "korban", from a root that means to come near. The korbanot are history, but they are also destiny.
For both reasons we read the sacrificial data at the beginning of the daily morning prayers.
Bringing sacrifices makes us closer to God. The Netiv Binah says that the offerings "come to teach us that we have received all our possessions from Him and that we are therefore to place them at His disposal".
Hence as each day opens we say to the Almighty, "HaShem, what can we do to serve You today?"
THE POOR MAN’S OFFERING
The second chapter of Vayikra begins by saying, "When 'nefesh', a soul, brings a meal-offering to the Lord…" (Lev. 2:1).
"Nefesh" – on one level – means a person. It also means a soul.
Whose soul are we talking about? The Gemara Menachot as quoted by Rashi says this refers to the poor man. Others can afford more costly offerings but the poor man is limited in his means and can only bring something that is relatively less expensive.
The main thing about his offering, however, is that his soul is in the offering he brings. More than this, he asks God to regard his offering as symbolic. His offering denotes that if he could he would offer his very nefesh, his entire soul, his whole life, to the Almighty.
JEWISH & NON-JEWISH SINS
The list of offerings includes sacrifices in expiation of sins.
There were deliberate sins and unwitting sins. Some wrongful acts are a mistake which would have been firmly prevented if we had possessed enough awareness of what was going on; others were the outcome of defiance of God.
In the view of most commentators, we are speaking about deeds carried out by Jews. The Sifra, however, thinks that the Torah text is concerned with acts committed by anyone, Jew or non-Jew. All are God’s children and all owe Him fealty.
True, there are certain types of sin that arise out of a person’s ethnicity or culture, but no human being is excused or acquitted because of where they come from.
UNWITTING GOOD & EVIL
Rashi’s commentary on this week’s reading introduces us to a fascinating doctrine.
There is a verse that says, "If a person sins but does not know it, he is guilty and bears his iniquity" (Lev. 5:17).
Rashi’s "chiddush" (his novel idea) is that just as a person is punished if he sins unwittingly, so is he rewarded if he does a good deed unwittingly (as usual with Rashi, the doctrine derives from much earlier rabbinic sources, but such is Rashi’s greatness that without him we may not have known it).
An example given by Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah of this unwitting mitzvah concept is a person who is harvesting his field and forgets a sheaf. The Torah prescribes (Deut. 24:19) that the stranger, the orphan, etc., may enter and take the forgotten sheaf.
This is part of the Jewish code of social welfare and ensures that no-one will be without means of support.
We are assured that the Holy One, blessed be He, has a special blessing for the farmer, yet the farmer was unaware that he had done a mitzvah. Had he consciously decided to do the mitzvah, we could not have said that he had forgotten the sheaf. Where would the forgetfulness have been if he knew what he was doing?
The result of his unwitting good deed is that he enjoys a Divine blessing.
One should never do a mitzvah for the sake of a reward but if the reward comes, it is still a reward. It is always best to do a mitzvah because you want to, but if the mitzvah happens regardless, it is still a mitzvah.
There is a Biblical verse, "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days" (Kohelet 11:1).
The conventional interpretation is that if you invest wisely you will eventually gain a profit, but the Soncino edition of Kohelet adds (page 181), "The traditional Jewish interpretation is accepted by many moderns, that the exhortation is to practise goodness and kindness from which a reward may unexpectedly and after a long interval be reaped".
In the sense of the Rashi commentary which we have quoted, the verse may be read as saying, "Make good deeds a habit and sometimes you will find yourself doing them even without realising it, and even if you were not looking for a reward you will still earn one".
Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com