Vayikra Rabbah 3:5

“And he [the priest] shall split it [the bird] by its feathers, without severing it, and turn it into smoke on the altar, upon the wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to God” (Leviticus 1:17). Rabbi Yochanan said: If an ordinary person smells the odor of feathers he is nauseated, and yet you say, “…the priest shall turn it into smoke on the altar!” (ibid.). Why then did the Torah go to such an extent? However, it is in order that the altar should be beautified with the offering of a poor person.

Vayikra Rabbah chapter 3 focuses on the merit of the poor. The least expensive offerings were birds, and the midrash’s opening paragraph makes the point viscerally. Burning bird feathers smells awful, yet the Torah commands this sacrifice because the smell of economic inclusion pleases God. What an expression – the altar beautified by the participation of the poor!

The midrash continues with three stories, each valorizing the sacrificial offering of those with very little means.

King Agrippa sought to offer up a thousand olah-offerings in a single day.
He sent a message to the High Priest saying, “Let no one bring any offerings today except for me.”
A poor man came with two turtledoves in his hand, and said to the priest, “Offer these up.”
He replied to him, “The king has commanded me, saying to me, ‘Let no one bring any offerings today except for me.’”
[The poor man] said to him, “My master, High Priest! I capture four every day. I offer up two and I sustain myself with two. If you do not offer them up, you will cut off my sustenance!”
He took them and offered them up.
It appeared to Agrippa in a dream: The offering of a poor person has taken precedence over yours!
He sent a message to the High Priest, saying, “Did I not instruct you that no one should bring any offerings today except for me?”
[The High Priest] told him, “My master, the king! A poor man came with two turtledoves in his hand, and said to me, ‘Offer these up.’ I said to him, ‘The king has commanded me, saying to me: Let no one bring any offerings today except for me.’ The poor person said to me, ‘I capture four every day. I offer up two and I sustain myself with two. If you do not offer them up, you will cut off my sustenance.’ Was I not to offer them up?”
He said to him, “Everything you did, you did properly.”

There was an incident involving an ox, that people were trying to pull it along as a sacrifice but if refused to be pulled.
A poor man came by with a bundle of endives in his hand. He stretched out his hand and it ate it, and the ox coughed and expelled a needle. And after that, it was pulled along as a sacrifice.
It appeared to the owner of the ox in his dream: The offering of a poor person took precedence over yours!

There was an incident involving a woman who brought a handful of fine flour.
The priest degraded her, saying, “See what these women offer up! What is there in this [minimal offering] that can be eaten [by the priests]. What is there in this [minimal offering] that can be offered up?”
It appeared to the priest in a dream: Do not scorn her, for it is as if she offered up her very soul (nefesh)!

The first story charmingly concludes with the king himself agreeing with the priest that the right thing was done in offering the poor person’s birds, even against the king’s command to only offer his own sacrifices that day. Things are astonishingly harmonious.

The second story involves no priest directly. The scene takes place outside the ritual sphere. One person desires to bring an ox as a sacrificial offering, but it refuses to cooperate. A poor person appears and, in contrast to the poor person in the first story, does not appear to have any intention of offering a ritual sacrifice. However, he somehow senses the issue and offers a bundle of endives to the ox. The end result is that the ox’s owner fulfills his hopes, but then is told in a dream that the poor person’s sacrifice took precedence. This although the poor person did not even intend to offer a sacrifice in the Temple! The sacrifice of the poor person, therefore, broadens beyond the priestly domain.

The third story directly casts the priest in a bad light. Unlike the priest in the first story, who knew the right thing to do, or the implied priest in the second story who was presumably ignorant of the poor person, this third priest sees no worth at all in the poor woman’s offering.

Burton Visotzky remarks that “Although one would expect an ostensible commentary on Leviticus to dwell at length and with much praise upon the priesthood, [Vayikra Rabbah] actually treats it quite differently. There are a limited number of texts bearing directly on the priesthood and these are of decidedly mixed nature. There are texts which offer praise to the priesthood and offer it as a model for the rabbinate. Yet, there are also texts which are acutely critical of the priesthood. In between these extremes are texts that point to the replacability of the priesthood and to the tensions that exist between Moses as rabbinic model (Moshe rabbenu) and the priests. (Golden Bells and Pomegranates, pp. 6-7)

I think in this particular midrash, we see the full range of rabbinic attitudes towards the priesthood. At best, the priest can facilitate the inclusion of the economically marginalized. At worst, the priest represents power that sees the world selfishly and has lot touch with other perspectives.

Another key element of all three stories, and frankly an odd one, is the role of dreaming in revealing the poor person’s merit. In the first story, the king dreams. In the second story, the owner of the ox dreams. In the third story, the priest dreams. The message of the first two dreams is identical – those offering sacrifices are told that “the offering of a poor person took precedence over yours!” The dream offers them insight – transformative perhaps for the king, oddly irrelevant to the ox owner. Before I explore the message of the third dream, let’s pause and think about the significance of dreaming in these folktales.

Galit Hasan-Rokem reminds us that in the Talmud, “The formula suggesting that a dream is one-sixtieth part of prophecy (TB Berakhot 57a) characterizes the dream as an experience that, fundamentally, rests on the fragmentation of a world we experience as wanting. Nothing can equal a dream, which is entirely lost on awakening, to drive home the experience of recurring loss. (Web of Life: Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Literature, p. 107)

The dream is a small prophecy, allowing for knowledge beyond the normal. How often do we truly know the relative merit of our sacrifices? But as Hasan-Rokem explains, a dream is also an experience of loss. I can’t help but wonder at the connection between the theme of loss and the theme of sacrifice in this midrash. In a way, those who sacrifice a lot, relatively, already experience loss on a constant basis. Those like the king and even the owner of the ox do not feel the loss of sacrifice as sharply, and in these stories the dreams inform them of a loss in impact, and afflict them perhaps with a fading sense of something wrong. The king at least remembers the dream long enough to make a change in his way of being. But how long does it last, in memory and in deed?

The last topic I want to discuss is the word nefesh. It’s harder to catch in the English translation, but this word becomes the main key in the final message. The message the priest receives in the dream shifts from information to a command – do not scorn a meager offering from someone of meager means. It is as if she offered her own nefesh. The midrash then concludes drawing this lesson out.

Now there is [a lesson to be derived] by kal vachomer. If nefesh (living being, soul) is written with regard to one who does not actually offer up a living being (nefesh), then one who actually offers up a living being (nefesh) is considered as if he offered up his soul (nefesh)!

The word nefesh carries several related meanings. Most physically, it originally meant throat, and then broadened to mean a living being, before eventually naming a non-physical essence we call soul. The midrashic conclusion makes no sense unless the rabbis are playing on this range of meaning. If someone who offers grain, the most basic of sacrifices, can be referred to by the word nefesh, then one who offers a more substantial sacrifice of a living being, such as an animal, can be considered to have offered up their very soul.

This last point seems to contrast with everything that went before. If the point is that those who have little but give anyway take precedence over those with more means, why then valorize more substantial sacrifices?

The rabbis are not living with a ritual sacrificial system anymore. So what do they hope we’ll learn from the biblical instructions by sharing these stories and morals with us? Norman Cohen points out that this midrash shifts from the korban ani to the korban inui, from “the poor person’s sacrifice” to the “self-afflictive sacrifice.” The living being (nefesh) they refer to is not a separate being from us, but our own most vital selves. We have ourselves to give. How best do we do that today? What if we truly thought of prayer this way? Or tikkun olam, activism? I don’t believe the ideal is to self-destruct, so there must be limits to self-sacrifice, but what does it mean not to hold back in our sacred service?

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