Table for Five: Vayikra
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
When you present an offering of meal baked in the oven, [it shall be of] choice flour: unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, or unleavened wafers spread with oil. Lev. 2:4
Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, The Chai Center
Sometimes the most seemingly arcane Torah verses can have surprising relevance to our modern lives. I run The Chai Center, a Jewish outreach organization, and we hold free High Holiday services for the Los Angeles community every year. No tickets and no appeals!
We always get a crowd, no matter the venue. Now we’re at the Writer’s Guild Theater, but we used to hold services at various upscale hotels. We always encountered the same glitch. We needed to serve wine and honey cake to the 600-900 attendees for the advertised “Largest Jewish New Years’ Eve Party” aka Rosh Hashana Kiddush. The hotels wanted to charge us a “food and drink fee” which included a $25 corkage fee per bottle. My father Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz of blessed memory, cleverly told the hotel management that the wine was our holiday “wine libation” dating back to the times of the Temple.
For the sake of religious freedom, the hotels were wiling to set aside the corkage fee. But what about the Honey cake, they asked? To answer this question, my father referenced this week’s Torah portion: “When you present an offering of meal baked in the oven, it shall be of choice flour: unleavened cakes with oil mixed in.” This explanation convinced them not to charge us a food or drink fee. It’s nice to know that gentiles still respect the Jewish Bible thousands of years later!
These yearly gatherings resulted in dozens of Jewish marriages, and hundreds of children. Shabbat Shalom!
Justin Levi, President of The Community Shul
I don’t know about you, but when a global pandemic hits that fundamentally alters our daily life, the part of the Torah I look to for guidance is… the meal offerings. Wait, what? Seems a bit anticlimactic.
In truth, however, some of the Torah’s most seemingly subtle passages offer great depth and insight. This pasuk describes some of the requirements of bringing meal offerings, which are composed of nothing more than wheat flour, oil, and frankincense. Very often, the individual bringing such an offering was poor, and therefore could not bring an offering of any type of animal. In our current state of affairs, this should be a clue for us all to devote ourselves to helping those around us, no matter how much we are struggling, because, let’s face it, we are all going through hardships right now of one sort or another. Even if all you can do is something small, like delivering food for an elderly neighbor, then even that is something great that will earn G-d’s favor.
The pasuk also specifies that the offerings are to be unleavened. In a few weeks, we will eat the ultimate unleavened food – matzah. We are taught that the lack of leaven is a metaphor for humility – all the substance but without the hot air. Right now, it’s not about you. It’s about everyone in our society. It’s about doing what is necessary without regard for our own egos or opinions.
Ultimately, we all get through this together.
Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO SANE; Author, Reaching New Heights
How does oil “mixed in” a cake differ from that “spread on” a wafer? Chassidus teaches that there are two levels of meditating on the greatness of Hashem: with the head and with the heart.
When your connection to Hashem is only through your mind and thoughts, it is like the oil spread on the wafer. The connection is easily broken when your concentration slips. A higher level of connection, “re’usah delibah, the will of the heart,” is formed when your thoughts become “mixed in” and absorbed into your heart. This actualization of the meditative wisdom allows one to experience the essential love connecting a Jew to Hashem, a love like that of a parent and child, for, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained, “the father and a son are a single entity sharing one essence.”
How can you mix the oil in, to rise to re’usah delibah? Through genuine, happy Teshuvah, repentance, that cuts through the layers blocking your heart and allows G-d’s wisdom to intermingle with our own essence. There are two levels of Teshuvah, as well. Teshuvah tataah, the lower level, springs from bitterness. Teshuvah ilaah, the higher level, comes out of happiness. When a person is bitter, their connection to Hashem is tenuous, like a thin layer of oil floating on but not penetrating a wafer.
Happiness, though, makes a person expansive, accepting, like oil permeating flour to create a cake. Teshuvah from that source serves to strengthen and expand our connection to Hashem.
Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu Arevo, Women’s Beit Midrash of the Sephardic Educational Center
The meal offering is one of the voluntary offerings in the Temple. In the hierarchy of the sacrifices from the most expensive to the cheapest, the meal offerings are at the lowest level. Rambam makes the point that anybody can make a voluntary offering: even a poor person can bring “one of the types of bread that were common in those days” (Guide for the Perplexed III, 46).
Poor people typically have fewer options. Here too the ingredients are prescribed in advance: flour, water and oil without leavening. But from then on there is a range of options: the dough can be shaped into cakes (round loaves) or rolled out into flat wafers. The loaves have oil mixed in and the wafers have oil drizzled on top. The oven is one of three possible cooking methods (alongside a griddle or a pan).
The simplest food, poor people’s daily bread, is what marks them as poor. Here in the context of a voluntary offering it takes on a new significance – it is the product of a free choice made in a moment of liberty. The badge of poverty changes its meaning and becomes an offering, and the poor person becomes an equal partner in the sacred service. Through this base-line offering the Torah grants the poor person a sensation of freedom, and endows society with an awareness that everybody’s contribution has an equal value – no portion is too small, and every individual is part of a greater whole.
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
This verse is part of a series of verses that give instruction as to how the voluntary meal offerings were to be brought. Each one had to consist of fine flour, olive oil, frankincense, and salt. The manner of preparation, however, was up to the one bringing the offering.
This verse addresses the options one had when bringing a baked offering. Although the details of this mincha (gift offering) may seem somewhat removed from our day-to-day experience of Judaism, they nonetheless play a significant role in the biblical narrative, and they offer us insight even now. The first person to offer a mincha was Cain. He brought a simple offering of “the earth’s fruit.”
Unlike Cain’s simple offering, which God did not find acceptable, the mincha brought in the Tabernacle and Temple was complex and involved. The mincha required time and an attention to detail. Before it was even fit to be offered, the grain had to be milled and sifted, and the olives had to be pressed. Each cake or wafer needed to be kept unleavened. In this manner, the mincha offering rectifies Cain’s error by requiring a level of attentiveness and personal investment that perhaps Cain’s offering lacked.
It is noteworthy that both the words “challah” and “matzah” appear in this verse. These breads are still central to Jewish life, and are even emblematic of it. In Jewish life, and life in general, we must harness our attentiveness for things of substance and offer our very best.
With thanks to Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, Justin Levi, Miriam Yerushalmi, Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu Arevo, and Rabbi Avraham Greenstein
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