Parashat Vayikra / פרשת ויקרא
Torah Portion: Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

Most things in life are not “one-size-fits-all.” Things like rain ponchos and adjustable baseball caps, which claim to be OSFA, often leave the wearer feeling too small or too large. The lack of fit can sometimes be embarrassing. The truth is that that “all” really means “within a pre-determined range,” but human beings come in so many shapes and sizes that there are bound to be those who fall outside of this range. Clearly, one size does not fit all much of the time.

This reality holds not only for clothing, but education, finances, medicine, and even sacrificial offerings. As we learn in the Book of Leviticus (5:1-11), priests were instructed to accept certain types of sin offerings on a “sliding scale.” These offerings, termed “the ascending and descending offerings” by our sages, reflect our ancestors’ recognition that not all Israelites were of equal means. Some had the wealth to bring a sheep or goat to the Tabernacle, but others could afford to bring only two turtledoves or two pigeons, while still others had the ability to offer just a small measure of flour. The priests understood that a one-size-fits-all sacrificial system would have barred access to the Divine for all but the wealthiest classes.

Because the Torah institutes this progressive system of sin offering, all those who would commit minor sins were given the opportunity to repair their relationships with God. The Hebrew word for “offering” is “korban,” which implies nearness; one would bring an offering near to God by handing it over to the priests, who would, in turn, perform the necessary sacrificial rites. All people were capable of acting in ways that our biblical ancestors believed offended God. Fortunately, all people were also able to come near to God once again, effectively starting over with a clean spiritual bill of health. This would not have been possible had all sinners been required to bring the same, costly offering to the Tabernacle.

Later Jewish tradition also understands that the path to God is not the same for all God’s children. In giving tzedakah, for example, each of us is expected to give according to our ability. We may give more, if possible, but not less. In its commentary on this week’s Torah portion the Stone Edition Chumash teaches:

God took pity on a poor man and assigned a very inexpensive offering to him so that he could afford to obtain atonement. But if a rich man bring this offering, not only does it not atone for him, he is guilty of the sin of bringing an unsanctified object into the Temple Courtyard (Talmud Kereitot 28a). In giving charity, as in bringing offerings, one must give according to his means. A rich man has not fulfilled his obligation if he gives as little as a poor man (Chafetz Chaim).[1]

Interestingly, the Shulhan Arukh, one of the central codes of Jewish law, requires that we support the needy in the life to which they are accustomed. This may seem unfair to the most destitute among us, but it further demonstrates the extent to which Jewish tradition rejects a single standard of piety for all.

Another example: a current reality in American Jewish religious life is that not all who seek to be part of community are able to pay a fixed mandatory fee to become a member of a synagogue. Fortunately, most synagogues nowadays offer tiered or “fair share” dues and are prepared to work with anyone who desires to be close to God and community. We are also seeing synagogues experiment with a voluntary pledge structure, whereby individuals and families freely contribute what they are able to support their congregation of choice, no matter how little that may be.[2] It’s not yet clear if the voluntary pledge model can sustain congregations financially in the long run, but the experiment surely reflects the value of keeping community-based spirituality accessible to everyone.

Like all human beings, each Jew is unique; the abilities and needs of one Jew are the not the same as all other Jews. It is heartening, therefore, to see how Jewish communal life today so willingly accommodates the special circumstances of individuals and families, whether in including people with special needs, providing texts in translation for new immigrants, creating learning opportunities for people with different levels of knowledge or engagement, etc. True, we can scan the communal landscape and discover where more needs to be done in these and other areas in order to ensure access. Homebound elderly certainly deserve more connection with their communities than most currently enjoy, to name but one population whose needs do not fit well within our current communal structures.  Nonetheless, we should be grateful that the priests of the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple oversaw a sacrificial system that was maximally inclusive to the extent possible in its day and which laid the foundation for our own efforts to draw seekers of all shapes and sizes near to God’s presence.

[1] Scherman, Rabbi Nosson, The Chumash. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1997, p. 563.

[2] “The Pay What You Want Experiment at Synagogues”, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/the-pay-what-you-want-experiment-at-synagogues.html?_r=0, accessed 3/19/2015.

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