Parashat Vayikra: The Unique Offering
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About everyone's unique role in the word: on kings and priests, sacrifices and bikurim. And a visit to Mt. Tsebo'im.
"No meal offering that you offer to the L-rd shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to the L-rd. You may bring them to the L-rd as an offering of choice products; but they shall not be offered up on the altar for a pleasing scent" (Vayikra 2: 11-12).
King Uzziah as a parable
Uzziah, king of Judah, was one of the righteous kings of the Davidic dynasty. II Kings (15:3) attests that "He did what was pleasing to the L-rd, just as his father Amaziah had done." While this is immediately qualified by: "However, the shrines were not removed; the people continued to sacrifice and make offerings at the shrines," we must keep in mind that this is not unusual in regard to many of this dynasty. For this reason, the next verse is quite puzzling: " The L-rd struck the king with a plague, and he was a leper until the day of his death; he lived in isolated quarters, while Jotham, the king’s son, was in charge of the palace and governed the people of the land." Why does Uzziah receive such a denigrating punishment, what we would call today "incapacitation," while his son becomes the de facto king? Furthermore: he contracts leprosy, a punishment with deeply negative spiritual connotations, whereas those afflicted are ostracized from society!
However, what the book of Kings concealed is revealed by Chronicles. There (II 26:16), after describing Uzziah's dazzling success in managing the kingdom (due to his seeking out G-d; verse 5), he decides to perform an act described by the text as follows: "When he was strong, he grew so arrogant he acted corruptly: he trespassed against his God by entering the Temple of the L-rd." What is this "corruption"? Did he veer from the path of the service of G-d? On the contrary: he actually wanted to serve G-d even more intensely! "To offer incense on the incense altar." Out of his great desire to cleave to G-d, he wants to perform acts forbidden by the Torah that may only be performed by those of priestly lineage. And then "leprosy broke out on his forehead in front of the priests in the House of the L-rd beside the incense altar" (ibid., 19). This is his treachery for which he becomes a leper.
King but not Kohen
It seems that the idea behind this story, about a king who wanted to become a Kohen, teaches us that we each have a unique role in life and something that we are supposed to rectify in this world. There is no place for competition or jealousy. Our objective is to construct the palace of the King of the world, in the most complete and perfect manner possible. Each of us have several square meters that we are supposed to build, and we are supposed to do our work in the best way possible. The moment that the person in charge of ceramic tiles decides on his own—out of his great love for the king—to also fix the palace's electrical wiring system, he is committing treason. Not only is he abandoning the area that he was charged with, but he is also tinkering with something that he does not have the qualifications to fix; even if he attempts to fix the electricity, he will certainly cause a blackout, at best.
Rectification: unique to each individual
One of man's primordial desires, manifest soon after the world's creation, is the desire to give back to the Creator from the blessings that He bellowed on him. Adam offered sacrifices right after his creation, as did his sons Cain and Abel. This is a genuine and beautiful act; yet, to ensure that it leads to something constructive, and not destructive, we need to make sure that every part of our actions follow G-d's directives.
Every component of creation has a specific unique way in which it can be elevated. For instance, for the olah offering only male, and not female animals may be brought. If someone, with only female livestock, wants to cleave to G-d and bring his cow or goat—this will be a destructive action. The way in which it is possible to come draw closer to G-d by using female animals does not go through the "route" of olah offerings.
A primary offering, but without a "pleasant scent"
Similarly, the Torah commands us not to offer up sweet fruit, "honey" in Torah terminology, on the altar. Does this mean that fig and date growers cannot bring up their produce to the Beit Hamikdash? On the contrary. They can certainly bring them, but not as a sacrifice, but rather as a "primary offering": bikurim, first fruits. These are not a sacrifice per se, but they are brought near the altar: "And he would set on the side of the altar, prostrate, and leave" (Mishna Bikurim 3:6). In this capacity, bringing these fruits are not only commendable but compulsory—but not as a sacrifice. The moment we realize that everything has a purpose, that everything can reveal G-d's kingship in the world, but in the manner suitable to each individual, and not from the desire to copy others (which may stem from misplaced jealousy)—in this way we can build the foundation upon which we can truly construct a palace for the King of kings.
The speedy Tsevo'ites
"The people from Mount Tsevo'im brought first fruits prior to Shavuot, but [the priests] did not accept from them, because of what is written in the Torah: 'And the festival of the harvest, the first-fruits of your labors, which you have sown in the field' (Exod. 23:16)" (Mishna Challah 4:10, Bikurim 1:3).
One natural phenomenon is that any given fruit, when in a warmer climate, will blossom and ripen earlier than the same fruit in a colder climate. This is the phenomenon described by the Mishna, also discussed in the Tosefta (Shevi'it 7:12), in the context of the blessing Yaakov gives his son Binyamin, understood by the Midrash as a reference to various regions in the latter's portion: "'Binyamin is a ravenous wolf' – this is, his land 'grabs,' 'in the morning he will devour his prey' this is Jericho, which is earlier, 'at evening dividing his plunder' this is Beit El, which is later" (Bereishit Raba §99:3). That is, Jericho—with its lower altitude and warmer climate—produces and ripens fruit earlier; while Beit El—of a higher altitude and colder climate—produces fruits that ripen later on. So too, the fruits of the residents of Mt. Tsevo'im were quick to ripen, which made it technically possible for them to bring them before Shavuot. However, the Kohanim did not receive the bikurim from them, since the time of brining bikurim starts only from Shavuot.
Mt. Tsevo'im is apparently associated with gey hatsevo'im, mentioned in the context of the Philistine's attack on King Saul at the beginning of his rein; the text situates the valley near the desert (I Shmuel 13:18). The name of the place is presumably preserved by the Arab name for the stream Wadi Abu a-Tsuba, situated southeast of Michmas, descending to the Jordan Valley. This region is in the portion of Binyamin, as noted above, which includes warm areas where fruit ripens more quickly. Ben Zion Segel, in his book Geography in the Mishna (Heb.), rejects the possibility that the Tsevo'im noted in the mishna above was located in the Lod area (as referred to by Nechemia 11:34-35). The latter region is not particularly warm, so it is doubtful that its fruit would ripen quickly.