This week’s parsha instructs the priests how to prepare and burn sacrifices and dispose of the remainder. In verse 2, G-d told Moshe to, “Command Aaron and his sons.” Commentators note the unusual formulation. At other times, G-d tells Moshe to “tell” Aaron. Rashi explains: “‘Command’ can only mean ‘motivate,’ now and for future generations.” Quoting the Midrash, he continues, “Especially, the Torah must motivate [Aaron and his sons] in a situation which entails a monetary loss.”
Rashi and the Midrash require clarification. What type of monetary loss are we dealing with here? Why do Aaron and his descendants, righteous servants of G-d, need extra encouragement? If anything, the person bringing the sacrifice needs the admonition. He must spend an appreciable sum of money on the sacrifice and must take the time to bring it. The priest needs no such advice.
ArtScroll comments that the Torah refers to the opportunity cost the priests incur. They cannot charge a fee for their work in the Temple. Since otherwise they could engage in paying jobs, the priests lose money. This becomes a bigger issue with respect to the burnt offering. All of it belongs to G-d. In contrast, the priests receive portions of the other sacrifices. They gain some benefit from their effort.
ArtScroll’s explanation overlooks the fact that G-d does compensate the priests, even if we downplay a priest’s portion of sacrifices. The Torah (Numbers 18:8-20) compiles a list of the priestly benefits from the harvest, from wine and oil, and from redemptions of animals. In addition, the priests earned five silver shekels for redeeming each first-born male. The priests kept certain dedications to the Temple. Ethics of the Fathers (6:6) mentions 24 such perks.
Finally, in Numbers chapter 18, G-d tells the priests that He chose them for their holiness. That alone should provide enough incentive to put in their best effort. Money should have no role in the influencing the degree of their dedication.
Ezor Eliyahu (Lemberg 1889) offers two other possibilities. He assumes that the priests need no extra incentive to ensure that they will do what the Torah prescribes in the rituals of the sacrifices. Rather, Ezor Eliyahu ties the “command” to the verse that follows. It describes how the priest must remove the ashes after burning the sacrifice.
Ezor Eliyahu sees a big difference between the priest’s devotion to offering the sacrifice and scooping the ashes. If the priest ruins the sacrifice, the person offering the sacrifice must bring another one. The priest does not want to cause a loss to this individual. Once the priest burns the sacrifice, however, he causes no economic damage if he makes a mistake in the disposal of the ashes.
In my view, the priest has an additional psychological reason to relax. The person offering the sacrifice has achieved his goal — atonement or finding favor with G-d — once the priest completes the burning. Scooping the ashes makes no difference. In short, when it comes to disposing of the ashes, his concentration could flag and he might try to cut corners. The priest could treat scooping up the ashes as an afterthought.
Next, Ezor Eliyahu explains the Midrash in the context of a monetary loss as the cause of G-d’s admonition. However, he considers the ultimate target of the motivation as the person bringing the sacrifice, not the priest. Also, the verse applies to the burnt offering itself, not the aftermath of the sacrifice. Under this construct, the Torah tells the priest to motivate the penitent. A burnt offering atones for failure to perform a positive commandment. Other mandatory sacrifices atone for violation of prohibitions. Performing a positive commandment — fulfilling an obligation — costs money. When this person brings a burnt offering, atonement requires that he change his behavior in the future. Changing his behavior will require the penitent to spend money and, further, to undertake a special effort.
In contrast, a person atoning for violating a prohibition must refrain from doing wrong, a goal that is easier to accomplish. A person must maintain constant vigilance in order to push himself to spend money. Therefore, the priest must motivate the penitent who brings a burnt offering, as opposed to a penitent who brings a sin or guilt offering.
I suggest that verse 2 refers to opportunity costs, but not in the way ArtScroll describes. Instead, the profitable alternative (the opportunity cost) involves the relationship between a burnt offering and the other sacrifices. The priest does not benefit in a material way from sacrificing a burnt offering. While performing that duty, other people wait to offer sacrifices from which the priest can feed himself. Naturally, he would want to hurry the former, in order to fit in more of the latter over the course of his day. G-d told Moshe to motivate the priests to concentrate as much on the burnt offering as on the other, more profitable sacrifices.
Each interpretation of the verse teaches a lesson.
The priest could treat ritual of scooping the ashes as secondary. Often, we pay little attention to the matters at hand, while we prepare for tomorrow’s “big thing.” We end up shortchanging both.
Motivation to fulfill a positive commandment. This applies to our preparations for Pesach. Necessities for the yom tov cost much more than for other holidays. We put in great effort to clean the house of chametz (or to travel to an expensive venue). Rather than feel a burden, we should pay special attention to embracing the celebration of our freedom.
Rushing through the burnt offering. All too often, in a hurry to get somewhere “important,” we become careless. I have seen harried drivers talking on their phones while holding the wheel with only one hand. We must motivate ourselves to obey the rules of the road, especially when we think we stand to lose if we do.
Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Kemp Mill, Maryland, and former gabbai of the main minyan at YISE and at Kesher Israel in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He has taught a weekly Talmud class at both synagogues, and has served as an officer and a member of the Board of Directors of both synagogues as well. A retired attorney, Joshua has lived in the Greater Washington area since 1976 and in Kemp Mill since 1986.