Mordechai Silverstein

How to be God’s equal

Sefer Vayikra closes out with a discussion of voluntary contributions to the Sanctuary or Temple. Individuals would give donations by evaluating their own personal value or the worth of their property, according to a given scale:

The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: ‘When anyone explicitly (yaflee) vows to the Lord your equivalent (erkekha) for a human being (nefashot)…’” (Leviticus 27:1-2)

Already, in the late rabbinic period, the practical nature and application of these laws became less relevant and so, the sages sought some deeper meaning in the words of this legislation. Noting that the word “yaflee” (from the root “peh lamed alef” –pele), which here means to “state explicitly” (See Rashi), can also mean “wonder,” and that “erkekha nefashot” can also have the sense of “self-evaluation”, the composers of the following midrash discovered a profound and for that matter, a radical religious message:

Then the Lord spoke unto Moshe, saying: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them: ‘When anyone explicitly vows (yaflee) to the Lord your equivalent (erkekha) among human beings (nefashot).’ (Leviticus 27:1-2) Regarding this verse, Scripture said: “For who in the skies is comparable (erekh) to the Lord?” (Psalms 89:7) [The Sages chose to interpret the verse from our parasha by playing it off a verse from Psalms which states that no one in the heavens is comparable to God.] The Holy One, Blessed be He said: “Whoever does like My deeds shall be [considered] like Me.” Rabbi Levi said: “[This can best be understood in] a parable about a king who built a country and lit two lanterns within it. [In gratitude] all of its many inhabitants called him, Augustus (Caesar). Said the king: ‘Whenever someone builds a country like this and lights in it two lanterns, call him Augustus and [know that] I will not be jealous of him.’ So, too, the Holy One, blessed be He, made the heavens and set in them two lanterns, to give light to the world, the sun and the moon… Said the Holy One, Blessed be He: ‘Anyone who is able to make two lights like these to bring light into the world shall be equal to Me.’ As it says: ‘For who in the skies is comparable to the Lord?’ (Psalms 89:7) These words can only be words [referring to] light, since it is stated: “He shall set up (a play on the word – arakh, which can also mean to “set up”) [the lamps] upon the unalloyed lampstand.” (Leviticus 24:4) (adapted from Tanhuma Behukotai 4)

Here, following God’s will and lighting the menorah in the Temple was to be considered an act imitating God, and, in consequence, those who performed this act made themselves “God-like.” Astoundingly, God does not see this as a challenge, instead, it is seen as a source of divine pride.

[The midrash continues:] Another interpretation – “For who in the skies is comparable (ya’arok) to the Lord”: Rabbi Eebon HaLevi said, “Who like You (God) clothes the naked” …  Another interpretation: “Who like You feeds the hungry?” “For who in the skies is comparable to the Lord” (in feeding the hungry)? (Ibid.)

Here, too, God performs merciful act which no heavenly creature can choose to do. Human beings, however, can and do choose to perform such acts, again, making themselves “God-like”!

Another interpretation – “For who in the skies is comparable to the Lord”: When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world and wanted to create Adam, the ministering angels said: ’What is a human that You are mindful of him, and a person that You should think of him?’ (Psalms 8:5) What do You want from this human?” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: “And who is to fulfill My commandments and My Torah?” They said to Him: “We will fulfill Your Torah.” He said to them: “It is written in it [the Torah] – ‘This is the Torah: When a person dies in a tent,’ (Numbers 19:14), but there are not among you dead. It is written in it [the Torah] ‘When a woman emits her seed and bears a male’ (Leviticus 12:2), but there are none among you who bear [children]. It is written in [the Torah]: ‘these you may eat,’ (Leviticus 11:21), and ‘these you may not eat,’ (Leviticus 11:4), but in your case there is no eating among you. Therefore, the Torah is not going forth to you… nor is there anyone among you that evaluates the value of human beings, as stated: ‘When anyone explicitly vows to the Lord the value of human beings.’” (in Lev. 27:2), therefore… “For who in the skies is comparable to the Lord?” (Ibid.)

For the author of this midrash, then, human beings are superior to angels. Unlike angels who have no choice in their actions, nor the ability to evaluate their deeds, people can choose their actions and imitate God’s ways. They can choose to be wonders (pelayim) and bring pride to God. Can anything be a greater reason to celebrate!

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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