Vayikra: Plain Flour

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

And if his means do not suffice for two turtledoves or two pigeons, he shall bring as his offering for that of which he is guilty a tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a sin offering; he shall not add oil to it or lay frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering.. . . .” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 5:11)

Good afternoon, it’s good to be back!

Before we get to this week’s Torah portion, I’m pleased to announce that all the archives of weekly commentaries I’ve written since 5759 (=1999) are now on my blog site, organized by parsha. (Thanks Ami!)

Now, onto some Torah learning. This week we begin the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus, which is largely concerned with the laws of the priests and the priestly offerings. Sometimes the piles of rules seems rather arbitrary and technical, but the ancient (and not-so-ancient) rabbis tried to discern moral and spiritual principles behind even the smallest details.

Above we have one such detail: that when someone who sins accidentally or unintentionally brings an offering of atonement, if they don’t have enough money to bring an animal offering, they can bring a handful of flour- but the flour should not have oil mixed in with it, as it sometimes is with other offerings. (Cf. Vayikra 2:1)

Sefer Ha-Hinnuch posits two reasons for the ban on oil in the flour-offering of the penitent as described above. First, it points out that oil is a symbol of luxury and wealth in ancient times- that’s why anointing with oil was a symbol of priesthood and kingship. Yet this atonement offering should be one that evokes humility, contrition and introspection, and thus in this case, adding oil to it would be mixing messages, as it were. (Marshal McLuhan should have studied the Hinnuch!)

Secondly, the Sefer Ha-Hinnuch assumes that the verse above applies to a poor person, as it occurs in a section which explicitly states that the mitzvah is to bring a large animal- unless one didn’t have enough money for a large animal, then bring a small one, and if that’s still too great a burden, then just bring some flour. So, if the verse already assumes that the only person who would bring the flour offering is a poor person, it makes sense to forbid the use of oil or spices, lest the penitent feel pressured to spend beyond their means in adding to a  small offering.

I learn two larger points from this commentary on the flour-offering. First, how we perform a spiritual practice affects the result of that practice. The offering was meant to be one of repentance, so it should be offered in a humble and plain way. Similarly, if we want to have spiritual experiences which transform us in joy, or humility, or gratitude, or reverence, or any other aspect of religious growth, we have to enter our prayers, practices, rituals and celebrations with the right framework to get us there.

For example, if you want to have a joyful Shabbat- make your dress, table, house, songs and prayers celebratory and inspiring. If you want to be inclined towards great reverence and introspection on Yom Kippur, prepare yourself accordingly, inside and out. To put it another way- we need kavannah [intentionality or mindfulness] to do mitzvot, but it’s also true that doing the mitzvot brings us to kavannah.

Finally, note that the ritual we’re discussing involves bringing a handful of flour, which our commentary assumes that even the poorest penitent could afford. In other words, the most ancient form of Judaism had at its very heart- the Temple offerings- an ethic of radical inclusion, at least in terms of socioeconomic status. The Temple- the place of the Divine Presence- was a place for rich and poor equally. The rich person’s big offering didn’t earn them any more atonement that the poor man’s flour offering; it only mattered that each brought something real and significant in their own sight.

So, nu, we ask again: if  it’s only a little oil on the flour, what difference does it make?

We might answer: if the unadorned simplicity of the flour helped our ancestors achieve humility in their spirituality and inclusion in their institutions, and if we can learn from that, then a little verse about a little oil in the flour makes a big difference, indeed.

Shabbat Shalom,


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