Leviticus 22:1-2 – “And God spoke to Moses, saying: Instruct Aaron and his sons to be scrupulous about the sacred donations that the Israelite people consecrate to Me, lest they profane My holy name, I am the Lord”.
I can only imagine what the Kohanim (priests) were thinking when offerings were brought to the temple in ancient times. In any one day, people might bring livestock to be offered on the altar (a great sacrifice for a person to make) while others might only bring some flour for a basic grain offering. The livestock was likely a more appealing option for the Kohanim, because it would mean they would have meat to eat. Nevertheless, though the grain offering might not have seemed like a lot, it allowed everyone who desired to bring an offering to God in the temple, regardless of their means. In comparison to the offering of a bull or sheep, the flour was probably much more routine and easily taken for granted by the Kohanim. I think that this is why the Torah commands the Kohanim, and by extension Jewish professionals, to be sensitive and appreciative of each offering we are given.
Why do the Kohanim need this reminder? Shouldn’t they be honored and humbled to perform the sacrificial rights using whatever an Israelite individual brings them? The Apte Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel (great-great grandfather of 20th century thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel) writes that this verse refers not only to the priests, but to all Jewish leaders, past and present. The verse serves as caution, for regardless of the gift presented to us, the bearer comes with an inherent holiness, as each individual wears God’s “crown of glory.” Therefore, the priests (and subsequent Jewish leaders) should not think that they are the only ones who are holy (which they might due to the privilege they have of performing the sacrifices and deeming which ones are worthy and which are not). Without keeping this in mind, the Kohanim might pass judgment on individual Israelites and their gifts and unnecessarily set themselves apart from the bearer of the sacrifice.
Every person that enters into our communities has something to offer that is unique to them and reflective of their means. Whether they have great ideas, care deeply about giving back, or can simply be counted on to show up with a smile on their face, we must treasure what each of them offers and not take it for granted. When we include those who may be different due to physical or intellectual challenges, we acknowledge their inherent holiness and fulfill our obligation to help all Jewish people make offerings to God, even if the offering requires special handling, understanding or is not what we are used to or what we are even hoping to receive.
We are not in a position to judge the worthiness of the individual or the quality and nature of their offering. We are only in a position to accept them for who they are, welcome the gifts they bring to our community, and work to find ways for them to share their gifts with everyone.
In Hillel engagement work, we often ask students who they know and whether they would be willing to bring a friend to the next event. There is a student on the autism spectrum who comes to Shabbat every week. When he first started coming, he didn’t know to bring his friends, and we didn’t ask or expect this of him. However, over time, he learned that he could bring friends like everyone else, and now does so every so often. He works the room better than our staff does, approaching each person who comes to introduce himself, share something about his life, and ask you about yours. The next time he sees you, he remembers what you told him, and often comes prepared with a follow-up anecdote to share. This is his gift, the gift of acknowledging everyone who comes to celebrate Shabbat and helping them to feel welcome. We love him and accept him for the gifts he brings, not for the gifts we wish he brought.
This is the lesson from all of the sacrifices we learn about in Leviticus and in Parashat Emor. Everyone is worthy of bringing their gifts.
Rabbi Ilan Schwartz is the Rabbi and Senior Jewish Educator at The Ohio State University Hillel. In his work, he focuses on infusing all of Hillel’s programs with Jewish educational content and atmosphere, engaging students in Jewish life at every opportunity. He earned his BA in Talmud and History from the Albert A. List College at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University, and was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2015, concentrating in Jewish Philosophy. Ilan lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife Rebecca and three sons.