Korban Minchah: The Finest Flour (March 2011)

In Parshas Vayikra we read of the different kinds of ritual sacrifice. In Haftaras Vayikra we read of Israel’s need for forgiveness and atonement.
Parshas Vayikra describes a type of sacrifice called an olah. This term denotes the burnt offerings made by fire. The word olah alludes to the ascent of the “essence” of the sacrifice which rises “heavenward” as smoke. God’s Presence in the midst of the desert community was indicated by a cloud and a fire. With that in mind, any “burnt offering” (involving fire and smoke) may be seen as being a ritual related to the “bringing near” of the Divine Presence in some way. In this sense there is an element of ascent and an element of descent in the process and it is that which has grabbed my attention. What are we “sending up” to God and what is He "sending down" to us?

The burnt offerings are described in Leviticus 1 and 2 and they are listed according to the wealth of the one making the gift. The most wealthy offering a bullock, the less well off birds, and the poorest an offering of flour. This last of the offerings made by fire is the sacrifice we usually refer to as the Korban Minchah, the “Meal Offering”. Though the term “minchah” was originally used to describe any ritual offering, it is used in Parshah Vayikra to denote an offering of unleavened bread made using flour and oil. The word has since come to denote the afternoon prayer service which replaced the afternoon Sanctuary/Temple sacrifice.

Besides the intrinsic ingredients of the bread itself, the meal offering included the pouring of oil and the laying of frankincense. This would increase the visual intensity of the flames and would produce a strong-smelling cloud of smoke when the offering was set on fire. Oil is one of the symbols for joy and also of consecration. Frankincense is one of the symbols of purification and of devoted prayer. All sacrifices were offered with salt as well, another symbol of cleansing but also of self-sacrifice and of wealth. If we remember that a sacrifice is an act of korban, of the drawing close of God and Israel, we could say that:

Flour and Oil:The sacrifice of our prayer is most acceptable when we offer it in joy and as a part of a dedicated life, not as a separate act. (Our entire lives should be an act of worship).

Oil and Frankincense: Our own effort, our “labour”, is blended with the Fire of God’s overwhelming Love and the Inspiration of His Breath so that we might “burn” more brightly in His service.

Salt: If we perform this kind of sacrifice to the best of our ability it will serve to purify our hearts to make the drawing close of our souls with God a possibility.
The giving of charity and the nullification of our own self-importance will complete the sacrificial act and make our prayers a potential atonement for ourselves and for those for whom we pray.

In Leviticus 2:3 and in Leviticus 2:10 we are told that the minchah offering is the “most holy of all the offerings made by fire”. Today I considered why this might be.

We are told that the offering should be of "fine flour" (solet). As the minchah offering was the sacrifice brought by the very poorest people, it is significant that despite their poverty, the best grain available was to be selected. It reminds us that even in (physical or spiritual) poverty we can always afford to select the very best we have to give as our offering to God.

 This applies especially to the way we observe mitzvos. Our intention is to “beautify” the mitzvos to the best of our ability and we do this by making full use of whatever expertise, intellect, or artistic skill we might be blessed with in performing the act of service we are engaged in. For contemplative Jews, this is especially so when we pray or when we study in Hegyon Ha-Lev(meditative scriptural reflection). The hurried performance of liturgy or a skimped half-attentive period of Torah study are like inappropriate fast-food or a cake made from a packet. We are to bring only the finest ingredients….even though we are poor in the sense that our personal resources are often limited (and always imperfect), we are asked to select only the best we can offer.

An animal sacrifice involves a lot of violent drama and splashed blood and is unavoidably spectacular. To a modern sensibility it is also an emotional event. It is not just a symbol of surrendered wealth, it is also is the taking of a life and the destruction of an animal “soul”. Some may feel that the drama and enormity of the action is a sign that animal sacrifice is in some way more momentous or even superior, but the text obviously sees things in a different light. The sacrifice of minchah is not the taking of life, nor the expending of an item of great financial value, nor is it performed on a grand scale. These are highly significant factors which indicates that a much more spiritual theology of sacrifice is at work. That which distinguishes the meal offering, and therefore indicates why it is singled out as being of special value, is that a cake of wheat-meal is the product of human labour. It is a sacrifice of the humblest human effort (unleavened bread) offered with holy joy (consecrating oil) and the devotion of those cleansed of self-interest (the purifying frankincense of prayer).

The korban minchah is the gift of a poor but devoted soul to a God who has and gives everything. It is a personal offering which is act of allegiance and a statement of trust in God.  It is an act of allegiance because it involves a person “presenting” himself before the altar (performing a religious commandment). It is an act of trust because the “poor one” making the offering has chosen the finest ingredients despite the cost.

When we say the blessing over bread which we are about to eat, we always use a formula which declares that God is the one who “brings forth bread from the earth”. It is clear that this “bringing forth” involves a great deal of human work and that we are not referring to a miraculous manna. This is to teach us (at least) two things.

Firstly: all our offerings are made from things which are already God’s to start with. We provide nothing but our labour. All creation is His Gift and the life which beats even in the molecules of a grain of wheat is not simply a matter of physical activity, it is simultaneously a life which is one of God’s “garments”. We ourselves only exist by His life-giving breath, and the impulse to serve is often as much a matter of inspiration as of any independent effort on our behalf.

Secondly: it is to encourage us by reminding us that, paradoxically, our partnership in the “life” and “work” of God is by no means insignificant. It is precisely because we have collaborated intensively in the production of the bread that the minchah sacrifice is declared the most acceptable and most valuable of all the sacrifices of the temple. It represents an ideal balance between Bitachon and Hishtadlus- between relying on Providence and taking the initiative ourselves.

The flour which makes our meal offering is the finest flour when it has been purified and processed in humility and yet still represents the very best we each have to offer. In return for our acceptance that we are literally paupers who rely on Providence at every moment, another bread falls.....the manna which is our spiritual sustenance,

The finest flour is also a symbol of which kind of prayer is the most valued. We may use a formulaic liturgy-but without the work of our own kavannah, our own attention to the task of prayers and to the discipline of “creating” a liturgy afresh each day…our offering would be lacking. If we make the avodat HaKodesh…our best labour then we will have understood the core meaning of the meal offering, and why it is declared the “most holy.”

And yet, however “holy” a sacrifice is we know that our intentions, our words, our acts of love, our efforts are only actually of value in the processes of atonement or worship as signs of our willing service. This is what I meant earlier when I pointed out that our prayer is most valuable when it is offered as a part of an entire way of life that is “holy”.

Our acts of restorative justice and the creation of a channel for grace in our everyday relationships and business dealings are what make our “atonement” a reality, not just our holy words and rituals. The drawing close of man and God is a part of God not some “thing” we burn or wave at Him to get our own way. He initiates both forgiveness and pardon on the evidence of our heart and our will, and not on the offering of promises, presents, or bribes. In the end, atonement is an activity of God’s Mercy, freely given. In Haftarah Vayikra we read:

“ I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions,
For My Own Sake.”
Isaiah 43:25

His Mercy is overwhelming and beyond our comprehension. As one of the Psalms exclaims:

For His kindness overwhelmed us
And His Truth is forever
(Psalm 117:2)

We may be overwhelmed when we consider God’s “kindness”, but our euphoria is usually short lived and we forget very quickly. Even with human gifts we become forgetful. We may be stunned by someone’s generosity or by the beauty of a gift, or even its financial value. Yet how many days or weeks pass before such a treasure seems to have become an object left on a shelf, in a cupboard, or wrapped away for safe-keeping and thus never used.

How could we take God’s gifts for granted?

-His Torah and His “daily miracles” are our most valuable possessions  
-His Word is without calculable value and can create worlds 
through the partnership of our human labour...
in both the physical and spiritual realms. 
-His Presence is a Light that is meant to shine on and out… 
not be stored away for personal use.

And yet the sad fact of our history is that we do repeatedly forget “His kindness” and fail to see that He is our true “wealth”. Haftaras Vayikra- the prophetic reading which accompanies the Torah description of the sacrifices- concludes with the plea:

“Remember these things, O Jacob
And Israel, for you are my servant
I have formed you and you are My own servant
O Israel, You should not forget Me.”
Isaiah 44:21

This is not just a coincidence. The act of sacrifice and the act of memory are closely related. There are those who would say that a large part of the rationale of our liturgy-in both the sacrificial cult and the rabbinic siddur- is to remind us and not God of the situation we are in. That the acts of prayer are not so much ways of attracting God’s attention (for He “sees” us always) as ways of focussing our attention on God.

Rituals are a way of recalling an event or concept of religious significance. They are an especially potent and effective aid to memory: a set of practices which encourages us to remember God’s “kindnesses” and just how “overwhelming” they really are. This function of remembrance is especially obvious in the mitzvos of tzitzit, tefillin, and the observance of Shabbos.

For a contemplative, it is also the act of prayer itself- in the dialogue of hisbodedus, in the infused contemplation of hisbonenus, and in the focussed recitation of the formal liturgy- which brings us most profoundly into the state of “remembering” God’s Presence and His gifts to us. All forms of Jewish prayer are both acts of ascending gratitude and praise and descending acts of Divine recollection. We are not just remembering God, He is in some way involving Himself with us. We are not recalling God’s deeds so much as becoming more consciously a part of His Being.

Our prayers are both an olah (an ascent) of praise and petition and a vehicle for the descent of God’s Mercy in the form of a heavenly manna. In other words, we present the finest flour of devotion and trust in His Providence. He blesses us with the daily sustenance which we need in order to serve Him. We are given just enough faith and trust to enable us to follow one step at a time.

But perhaps the most important aspect of the meal offering is that it is the offering of one who is “poor”. By poor I mean: clear sighted in humility before God who creates and owns all (koneh hakol). Whatever its theological dynamics or liturgical significance...the thing which makes the korban minchah most special for me is that it is not an offering demonstrating the sacrifice of one’s own “wealth” : but it is a demonstration of one’s intent to give the best one can. That is an act by which we remember God’s overwhelming kindness and through which we hope He will regard us as being His faithful servants. And it is a prayerful act of sacrifice, a korban minchah of the finest flour, which anyone can offer.

The small contribution we make in any offering to God is our effort. And though it is a small offering, in God’s eyes it is far from insignificant. Parshas Vayikra describes the person who offers the korban minchah as “nefesh” (a soul) not as “ish” or “adam” (a man). In the Talmud we read:

"For what reason is the introduction to the mincha changed, to say 'nefesh?' The Holy One said, Who is it who usually brings a mincha? A poor person. I will therefore consider it as though he sacrifices his soul (nefesh) before Me."
(Menachot 104b)

N R Davies
8th March 2011