Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

Not Everything is What It Looks Like

Rabbinic midrashic collections often open with “sales pitches” for the book they propose to interpret. One of the opening midrashim of Tanhuma Vayikra reads: “Once Moshe had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, split for them the sea, brought them to the desert, sent down manna for them to eat, brought up water from the well for them, brought the quail for them and made the Mishkan (the Sanctuary) for them, he asked God: ‘From this point on, what is there for me to do?’ The Holy One Blessed be He answered him: Come on, I have work for you that is even more important than what you have already accomplished. I want you to teach Israel about purity and impurity and how to offer sacrifices before Me.’” (See Tanhuma Vayikra 3)

The above story was drafted hundreds of years after the last sacrifice had been offered, when these laws no longer played an active role in Jewish life. Still, by studying them the sages sought not only to preserve their memory but also to be inspired by them both in spirit and in behavior.

Sefer Vayikra opens with the prescription for the offering of animal sacrifices. Such sacrifices were the “top of the line” offerings – the most expensive and supposedly the most generous. (See Leviticus 1) From the human perspective, they also had the potential to be the showiest. Next down the line were the “minhah” or meal offerings. (See Leviticus 2) These grain sacrifices might be offered by those unable to afford an animal sacrifice. They likely grabbed less attention and consequently might be looked down upon by those seeking to “make an impression” rather than a sincere religious offering. Unintentionally then, this sacrificial hierarchy had the potential to reinforce unhealthy attitudes about what was really important since human beings are often impressed by show over substance.

The following midrash sought to tackle this problem: “Better is a person who studies two orders of Mishnah and knows them well than someone who studies shallowly lots of Mishnah without mastering them, just so he might be known as a master of the Mishnah; better is a person who does business with his own money than someone who finds money through surreptitious means just so he might be acknowledged as a famed businessman; better is the person who does acts of tzedakah with his own money than someone who steals from others to do acts of tzedakah, just so he might be called a generous benefactor (a bar mitzvah); better is the measured donation of a minhah offering from a poor person than the communal incense offering (which was a major expense).” (Abridged and adapted from Vayikra Rabbah 3:1)

This midrash teaches an obvious lesson which is often lost on people. Life should not be about making an “impression”. It should be about substance and sincerity. And sincerity is not a matter of size and glitz but rather effort and heart.

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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