Parashat Vayikra 5769 (on freedom and service)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

Have you ever stood in front of the fridge or pantry and wondered what to make with the ingredients you have in front of you? That is the quandary presented by the second chapter of Leviticus. The mishnah and midrash indicate that if you are poor and want to volunteer a sacrifice but cannot afford an animal, you can bring a gift offering of grain – a minha, as described in this week’s parasha, and that God will be just as happy with this as with a more expensive offering. (Vayikra Raba 8:4, Mishna Menahot 13:11)

So we know who brings a minha – one who cannot afford to volunteer an animal – but how should it be prepared? We have our ingredients: fine flour, frankincense (which, in case you were wondering, is the resin of a Boswellia tree), and olive oil, but our parasha gives five options as to how to prepare our grain offering: raw (solet), baked (ma’afa), crisped (rekikin), grilled (mahavat) and fried (marheshet). (Leviticus 2:1-7)

Other menahot are given with statutory sacrifices, such as the regular afternoon offering, but these five are understood as the nedavot – voluntary offerings. So not only can we choose to give the minha, but we even have a choice of the method of preparation.

These minha sacrifices are later referred to as “neder u’nedavah” – vow and voluntary sacrifices. (Rambam, Laws of Sacrificial Practice, 12:4) Even though the original initiative always comes from the individual, it seems that there was a practice of making a vow to bring a minha in the future. According to the Mishnah, if one takes such a vow, the method of preparation is immediately fixed, and one must bring a sacrifice by the method that was stated in the vow. If you forgot which you specified, you have to bring all five menahot. Rabbi Yehudah even goes so far as to say that one who cites an amount of grain in his oath, but not a preparation method, is obligated to give the raw minha. (Mishna Menahot 13:1-2)

This drive towards a fixed obligation seems to reflect the Rabbis’ discomfort with too much flexibility in Jewish practice. They are unwilling to expand this unusual degree of freedom in cultic practice any further than the Torah explicitly determines. Modern thought, perhaps especially American thought, is very much opposed to the rabbinic tendency away from the free, and towards the pre-determined. Spinoza saw Torah law as a necessary only for primitive people who could not determine the good on their own. (Theological-Political Treatise) Kant understood truly moral behaviour as resulting only from one’s autonomous will and not from external law. And America was founded on the principle of an inalienable right to liberty.

Freedom is undoubtedly a very attractive proposition. And it is certainly contained within our tradition: we are already in Nisan, and Pesach’s main theme is freedom, liberation. This has led to the creation of thousands of contemporary haggadot applying this theme to all kinds of contemporary oppression.

However, the freedom of Pesach, of the Exodus, is not freedom for its own sake, but freedom withcommitment. Seven times in the book of Exodus, God says:

שלח את-עמי ויעבדני – Send forth my people andthey will serve me

On Seder night we recline, reminding ourselves that we are free, and can eat and drink in whatsoever posture we choose, a freedom denied to slaves in the rabbinic period. But this freedom to do as we like is only the beginning of freedom. Rather, our freedom is to serve God.

What, then, is the meaning of the Mishnah that locks us into a particular type of minha? Perhaps the Rabbis were nervous about freedom that has no commitments – sure we can give whichever minhawe want, but in our equivocation between baked or fried we may delay, or neglect the endeavour altogether. And so once we show our willingness to perform this act of giving, the Mishnah locks us in to a direct path.

Back at Pesach, when serving God doesn’t onlymean serving crackers, the path is not quite so direct. This year at the seder table, perhaps we can discuss not only how we gained our freedom and how we, and others, can gain freedom today, but also how we can commit to use this freedom to better serve God.

How can we commit to using our freedom of speech to speak words of kindness and speak up for good causes? How can we commit to using our freedom of movement to gain an appreciation for the world? How can we commit to using our freedom of assembly to gather in communities to support those within and without? How can we commit to using our freedom of religion to observe fully in accordance with our consciences? How can we commit to using our freedom from want to spend time on things more valuable than increasing our wealth?

And what is the purpose of these commitments that accompany our freedom? The Mishnah gives us some indication in its description of the Exodus:

הוֹצִיאָנוּ מֵעַבְדוּת לְחֵרוּתמִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָהוּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹבוּמֵאֲפֵלָה לְאוֹר גָּדוֹלוּמִשִּׁעְבּוּד לִגְאֻלָּה.

[God] brought us from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from mourning to festival, from darkness to great light, from subjugation to redemption. (Mishna Pesahim, 10:5)

God made us free. But it is up to us to use our freedom to create a world full of simha, yom tov, or gadol and geula: joy, festival, great light, and redemption. We may not complete the transition this year, but we can commit to working towards it,bringing the world closer to redemption.
The Rabbis gave us structure within the freedom of choosing a type of grain offering. So too, we should structure our freedom into concrete commitments, so that we can bring the world closer to the ultimate redemption.

Shabbat shalom, and a zman geula kasher ve-sameach.