This week’s haftarah is the last of the four special haftarot attached to four special additional Torah readings which precede Pesah. The special Torah reading for this Shabbat deals with the preparations required for the Korban Pesah – the special lamb offered in the Temple and then eaten on the night of Pesah. The haftarah we read this Shabbat gives us a glimpse into how the prophet Ezekiel, who lived at the time of the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, envisioned this and other sacrifices in the idealized restored Temple in Jerusalem.
Obviously on a historical level, Ezekiel’s prophecy has yet to be realized. Still, this did not preclude sages in all generations from culling wisdom from his divinely inspired legislation. And so, it should not surprise us from our knowledge of the rabbinic attentiveness to detail that what might seem like a minute difference in expression, something easily overlooked, could have the potential to offer a significant message.
In the latter part of the haftarah, Ezekiel outlines details about how the king was to offer his sacrificial offerings: “The gate that faces east shall also be opened for the prince whenever he offers a free will offering – be it burnt offering (nidava olah) or offering of wellbeing – freely offered to the Lord (shlamim nidava), so that he may offer his burnt offering or his offering of wellbeing just as he does on the Sabbath day.” (46:12)
This verse, ostensibly, deals with the regulation of traffic in the Temple, noting which gates will be opened on which days when an important person wants to make a voluntary offering in the Temple. Here, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen (Dvinsk 19th-20th century), one of the great minds of Lithuanian Jewry, noted a peculiarity in Ezekiel’s language. In the case of the burnt offering, where the offering is offered up entirely to God, the word “nidava – free will offering” precedes the word for burnt offering – ‘olah’, while when talking about the peace offering, where part of the offering is offered to God and part eaten by the those who offer the sacrifice, the word ‘nidava – free will offering’ follows the word ‘shlamim – peace offering’.
For Rabbi Meir Simcha, this easily overlooked difference of expression sparked an insight into human nature. The Olah offering was intended to be given over entirely to God. Since such a sacrifice was monumental, it offered a person the potential to either accidently or willfully take advantage of it for personal gain (to make a name for himself for his generosity). Consequently, the donor had to be reminded that the sacrifice had be freely “given” and no longer belonged to him. He further points out that even the appearance of taking advantage of such an offering might be construed as theft from God and should be avoided. Such an offering should be a pure offering without strings attached. This same reminder was not required for the peace offering which was offered on the altar but was, in part, also consumed by the one who offered it. (See Meshekh Hochmah Shmot – Haftarot, Cooperman ed. p. 346)
It is not an uncommon tendency for people to do good things for their own utilitarian reasons. Rabbi Meir Simcha urges us to try to move beyond our own narrow needs and to think about the greater good when we act altruistically.