Parashat Vayikra is a sort of User’s Manual for a person who wants to bring a sacrifice. Each sacrifice is described in an “If-then” structure familiar to computer programmers: If {Sacrifice X} then {do Y}. For example, the first sacrifice described is the Olah sacrifice [Vayikra 1:3-4]: “If {his sacrifice is a burnt offering (Olah)} then {he shall lean his hand upon the head of the burnt offering…}

One sacrifice, the Omer sacrifice, diverges from the If-then structure. The Omer sacrifice is offered on the second day of Pesach as part of the procedure performed to bring the first grain of the year to initial operational capability [Vayikra 2:14]: “If {you bring a meal offering of the first grains to Hashem} then {you shall bring your first grain meal offering from barley as soon as it ripens}”. Prima facie, the structure of this sacrifice appears identical to the structure of all of the other sacrifices described in the parasha. But there is one critical difference: the Omer sacrifice is not optional. It must be brought each and every year. The Midrash Mechilta teaches that even though the Omer sacrifice is introduced with the word “im”, typically translated as “if”, in the context of the Omerim” should be translated as “when”. There are two other examples in the Torah in which an obligatory law is introduced with the word “im”: the commandment to build a stone altar[1] and the commandment to lend money to the needy[2].

Rav Moshe Feinstein[3] explains that these particular mitzvot were written as if they were conditional when in fact they are obligatory in order that we should perform these mitzvot willingly and not merely because we are forced to do so. For example, the Rambam, writing in Hilchot Tzedaka [10:7-14], enumerates eight levels of charity, from the highest level to the lowest level. At one end of the spectrum, “The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him…” At the other end of the spectrum, the Rambam writes that the lowest level of charity “is when one puts money in another’s hand and does so unwillingly”. Although a person who gives unwillingly has still “put the tick in the box” and will receive a reward for his actions, he has not performed the mitzvah in the optimum manner. Hashem demands that tzedaka be given but He wants it to be given willingly and with compassion, and so the commandment begins with the words “If you lend money…” Rav Moshe continues down this path regarding the Omer offering. He notes that the owner of a new crop receives immense satisfaction by finally seeing months of his hard work finally come to fruition. Nevertheless, he is commanded to give a share of these crops to Hashem. “The fact that the owner gives away the fruits of his labour and his toil and that which he looked forward to harvesting is the greatest sign that he is performing these mitzvot willingly and lovingly”. And so the commandment begins with the words “If you bring a meal offering of the first grains to Hashem…”

Rav Moshe uses this logic to explain why Hashem accepted the offering of Abel and not of Cain. Both Cain and Abel offered the fruits of their labour to Hashem but whereas Abel offered [Bereishit 4:4] “the best firstlings of his flock”, Cain offered Hashem inferior produce[4] because he felt that the quality or the quantity of his offering made no difference to Hashem. After all, Hashem does not need man’s offering. Hashem is infinite: to Him there is no difference between “one” and “one million” or between economy class and business class. Only finite man is aware of or concerned by gradation. Cain felt he only had to “put the tick in the box”. Cain’s logic misses a critical point. Rav Moshe writes, “The idea of a sacrifice is that one should see that he is giving away what is dear [specifically] to him because that is Hashem’s will, and so he must offer his best”. Returning to the Omer sacrifice, Rav Feinstein teaches that even though a person’s first fruits might mean very little to Hashem, the mere fact that they are extra special to the person who is offering them means that he must offer them eagerly and of his own free will: “The eagerness with which he fulfils the mitzvah attests to his righteousness and his faith”.

Let’s go back to Cain and his offering. Was Cain’s logic really that misplaced? A person offers something to Hashem to show symbolically that he recognizes that Hashem has complete and entire mastery and ownership over all of his possessions. The mere act of giving is proof of this person’s recognition of that fact. The content of his gift should be irrelevant. Indeed, the Mishnah in Tractate Menachot [13:11] teaches that “It is said of the Olah of cattle [Vayikra 1:9], ‘An offering made by fire of pleasing odour’ and of the Olah of birds [Vayikra 1:17], ‘An offering made by fire of pleasing odour’ and of the grain offering [Vayikra 2:2], ‘An offering made by fire of pleasing odour’ to teach you that it is the same whether one offers much or little[5], so long as one directs one’s heart to heaven.”. Isn’t it the thought that counts?

A little bit of mathematics can drill a hole in Cain’s logical construction: What is the largest number in the world? A googol? A googolplex? A bejillion[6]? The answer is, of course, that there is no largest number. To each number you can add “one” to get a number that is just a little bit bigger. A googol-and-one is bigger than a googol. A googol-and-two is bigger than a googol-and-one. No matter how many cows you have in your flock, you can always make your flock larger by buying one more cow. The only way to have an infinite number of cows is to stop counting them, by standing away from the flock and by looking at the entire flock as a separate entity[7]. Infinity is not a number, it is a concept, a concept that can only be understood from afar.

Notice what we have just done: The only way that finite man can appreciate infinity is by taking himself out of the equation. Cain was entirely correct in assuming that Hashem did not differentiate between “good” and “better” but merely by making this assumption Cain was putting himself on Hashem’s level. As a result of his hubris, Cain could not attain the level of “directing his heart to heaven” and his offering was not accepted. We are commanded to approach Hashem as corporeal humans, finite and incomplete. We must willingly offer Hashem our best: our best livestock, our best fruits, and our best behaviour. Infinity is something man can and must strive for but at the same time must know that he will never achieve. Only by standing on earth and by gazing longingly upwards can we “direct our hearts to heaven”.

This lesson can be summarized in an If-then rule: If {man is cognizant of the infinite distance that lies between him and the Divine} then {he will be able to bridge that void}. Rav Moshe would add one more rule: When {man willingly and enthusiastically builds that bridge} then {he will be able to touch infinity}.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] Shemot [20:22]

[2] Shemot [22:24]

[3] Rav Moshe Feinstein was the ultimate arbiter (Possek) in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. While most are aware of his unparalleled halachic prowess, fewer know that a collection of his comments on the weekly parasha have been collated into a book called “Darash Moshe”. My thanks to Rav Ira Ebbin for giving me open access to his library this past weekend.

[4] The Torah does not specifically state that Cain’s offering was inferior. The fact that it lauds Abel’s offering and says nothing about Cain’s is proof that Cain’s offering was not up to spec.

[5] A cow costs around $1500 (in the US), a pigeon costs about $50 and a handful of wheat costs $1.99.

[6] A “googol” is 10100. A “googolplex” is the number 1 followed by a googol zeroes. A “bejillion” is my friend Scott’s favourite make-believe large number.

[7] This concept can be described rigorously in terms of set theory, but I will leave that for the mathematicians in the audience.