Torah | A particularly small sacrifice raises a bigger question

Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Ezekiel 44:15-31


An old joke tells of Max and Sadie, who get shipwrecked on a deserted island. Realizing they might be there for a long time, Max asks Sadie, “Did you turn off the water in the sink before we left?” “Yes, dear,” she replies.

“Good. Did you make sure someone would feed the cat?” “Yes, dear.” “Good.  Did you pay outstanding pledges to the Jewish organizations?” “Uh-oh honey, I didn’t.  I figured I would do it when we got back.” “Excellent!” exclaims Max, “Now I know they will find us!”

This week’s Torah portion describes an unusual sacrifice offered in Temple times. Most sacrifices involved animals (and also some grain, wine and oil), and were quite expensive.  According to the 13th century book about the mitzvot, Sefer HaChinuch, the price tag was a critical component of the experience.

People make mistakes, and knowing that making a bad decision would hit us squarely in the wallet, by necessitating a costly sacrifice, causes us to be more mindful of our choices. Money earmarked to the Temple not only assured Max and Sadie of being found, it also brought everyone an awareness of the repercussions of human actions to help us live more deliberate lives.

Yet this week we read of a particularly inexpensive sacrifice. “When you shall enter the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring an omer from your first harvest to the priest … to gain favor for you … you shall not eat bread or kernels until this very day, until you bring the offering” (Leviticus 23:10-14). This sacrifice, known as the “omer sacrifice,” is brought on the second day of Passover and marks the beginning of the counting of the Omer for seven weeks until the holiday of Shavuot.  It consists of one omer of barley on behalf of the entire community of Israel, and only after it is brought is the nation allowed to partake of the new grain that has grown this spring.

And there’s the oddity: An omer is a rather small quantity of grain — less than a gallon. Within the Sefer HaChinuch’s approach to sacrifices, what would be the role of an offering that was so inexpensive? Furthermore, how could a small bit of grain be considered a sufficient offering to allow for the consumption of all the grain grown this spring by the entire nation?

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 28:1) links this quantity of barley to the manna that fell in the desert to sustain the Israelites as they traveled. The daily ration of manna was also an omer. In the vision of this midrash, one earned one’s daily omer of food in the desert by symbolically offering an omer of barley per year. The Chinuch elaborates that it is from this that we derive the principle of making a blessing before we eat. This omer offering is the original version of the concept that before we enjoy the pleasures of the world, we first offer a bit of gratitude to HaShem. Back then we offered a mere omer of barley before enjoying the harvest, and today we offer a few short words (such as the hamotzi blessing for bread) before taking a bite.

Blessings before food have long struck me as a natural fit with Bay Area culture.  They are quick (10 words maximum), easy to learn (six blessings cover every food on the planet), free exercises in mindful eating and gratitude. I suggest them to many people who feel spiritually deadened and are seeking a more vibrant spiritual life.

The words offer a connection back through time, to generations of Jews on every continent who uttered these same words before their daily meals. In a world in which our experiences of consumption are devoid of context, in which we often think that milk comes from cartons and chicken was always wrapped in plastic, the words remind us to think back to the source. Where did it come from globally and under what circumstances was it produced?

The words also lead us to ponder the ultimate source of what is in front of us and indeed of the entire universe: Where did this come from in the very beginning? And they teach us a profound sense of gratitude for the privilege we are about to enjoy as we eat. A few short words, and we are ready to partake of the world. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected]