It has been 15 years since I first mused on this topic, so I thought it time to revisit them. Often enough, my musings for parashat Vayikra have dealt with the idea that its words teach us that G”d expects imperfection from us, and provides a means for us to come to terms with that imperfection. (That is not to say that G”d does not expect us to strive for as much perfection as we can achieve, but that G”d 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 G”d, 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 G”d 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 G”d 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 G”d, 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 G”d’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 relative?
Well, it’s already clear to me that G”d puts gifts in several categories. There are simply “thank you G”d 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 on thank you offerings, one chapter of well-being offerings, and two chapters on guilt/sin offerings. All three types of offerings are worth G”d 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 G”d 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 G”d of sacrifices? Of burnt sheep and goats and bulls? Of smelly incense or burning flour? G”d instructs the people on how to give gifts to say thank you, for well-being, and seek atonement because G”d 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.
All of these are very Jewish ways of doing things. We treat death similarly. Funerals 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 G”d’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.
Recently, I’ve been fond of playing with the idea of how we translate the word “m’odekha” from the V’ahavta prayer. Though it is often translated as might, I talk with students about the word “m’od” which they know to me “very,” sometimes in context can mean “more” or “much.” So I’ve been talking with them about the idea of loving G”d with our very-ness, or more-ness, or our much-ness. What might that be? I think it varies for each person, and, indeed, may be the whole point of the text. We each have skills, gifts, talents, passions. These are the things that are our “much-ness” and it is with those that we can love G”d. Music is a part of my “much-ness” and I certainly offer it as a way of loving G”d. I think our “m’odekha” comes as close to being unblemished as we can, so we can not only use our “much-ness” in loving G”d, but as our way of offering an unblemished offering to a friend.
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. How you can identify your “much-ness”. Once again, our ancestors prove their wisdom, and G”d shows true understanding of G”d’s creations. Offer up a thank you gift to G”d for G”d’s holy Torah, and G”d’s gift of creation and life.
©2015 (portions ©2000) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings On This Parasha:
Vayikra 5773 (Redux 5761) – Mambo #613: A Little Bit Of Alef In My Torah
Vayikra 5772 – Confession: Not Just for Catholics
Vayikra 5771 – I’d Like To Bring To Your Attention…
Vayikra 5770 – You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time
Vayikra 5768 – Redux 5763 – Kol Kheilev
Vayikra 5767-Stuff That’s Bugging Me
Vayikra 5766 – Osymandias
Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 – Kol Cheilev
Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts
Vayikra 5764 and 5761-Mambo #613: A Little Bit of Alef in My Torah…