June 16, 2024
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The Last Communication at Sinai

The end of Sefer Vayikra has puzzled commentators and scholars for centuries. After all, the section of the “blessings and the curses” (Vayikra 26:3-46) seems to have a perfect ending for the sefer: “These are the statutes and laws and teachings that God gave, between Him and between the Children of Israel, on Mt. Sinai through the hand of Moshe.” Even though the last verse of the sefer (27:34) is also pretty good (“These are the commandments that God commanded Moshe to [give over to] the Children of Israel on Mt. Sinai”), by coming after the previous summation (26:46), this last communication seems like an appendix rather than a powerful ending. And the content itself—technical laws and details about donating to the Mishkan (and Temple)—seems anticlimactic. Why is this how the sefer ends?

Although the last section being taught at Sinai provides a natural connection with the blessings and curses (which were also taught at Sinai), it still leaves us wondering why this is how the sefer ends (since these laws could have been taught earlier). Besides, rather than the location where it was taught providing an explanation for the placement of the last section, it leaves us wondering why these laws were taught at Sinai rather than in the Mishkan, where they’re more relevant—since the donations went to the Mishkan—and where so many other laws were taught.

Some (e.g. Hartom) suggest it would be inappropriate to end with the curses. Even though the last few verses are upbeat—that the covenant will never be discarded—this might not be enough to compensate for ending the sefer with curses. Nevertheless, this wouldn’t be enough of a reason for the section regarding donations to be taught—and said over to the nation—at Sinai; it could have been taught to Moshe in the Mishkan—as most of Sefer Vayikra was—and still been placed at the end of the sefer. At the very least, it could have been taught to Moshe at Sinai without instructing him to teach it to the nation right away. In any case, it seems kind of awkward if it was taught at Sinai just so it could be put after the curses, in order to create a more pleasant ending for Sefer Vayikra.

Another suggestion made is that because the laws taught in this section are not subject to the blessings or the curses—which come for following or disregarding the Torah’s requirements, and these donations aren’t required—they had to come after the blessings and curses. And since they were relevant to the Mishkan—with the funds raised from these donations going to the Temple treasury—they belong in Sefer Vayikra, leaving no other slot for them but the very end. However, the offerings described at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra were voluntary offerings, so were also not required, yet they were taught before the blessings and curses. To be fair, even though those offerings weren’t required, the way they were offered still had to match the way required offerings were brought, and deviating from that could bring about the curses. Nevertheless, deviating from the guidelines of the donations (such as placing a different value on what was consecrated than the Torah specified) should bring similar consequences. And, again, even if there was a reason it couldn’t be taught before the blessings and curses, that doesn’t mean it had to be taught at Sinai.

Ramban suggests that the final communication in Sefer Vayikra follows the previous one—the laws of shemitah and yovel (sabbatical and jubilee years) and the blessings and curses—because yovel is relevant when land is donated to the Temple treasury (27:16-23), and the Torah wanted to keep all the donation laws together. (Tithes and first-born animals are only included in this final communication to clarify that since they are already “holy” they can’t be donated.) However, in and of itself, this doesn’t seem like enough of a reason to create an appendix rather than including these laws in the laws of yovel.

Of all the suggestions I’ve come across, Kli Yakar’s resonates with me most. “This section follows the curses because Israel makes donations when things get rough.” In other words, knowing that when the curses become a reality we will start consecrating things, God therefore laid out the rules and guidelines for donations right after the curses.These laws are designed to be secondary, which is why they appear as an appendix, but important enough to end the sefer with.

Several aspects of these donation guidelines have very powerful underlying messages: (1) Rather than just donating money (i.e. 50 shekel), people (or things) are consecrated (and then redeemed), indicating that they are dedicating themselves (or their property) to a higher purpose, which (hopefully) leaves a lasting impression as to how they’ll live their lives (or use their property) from then on. (2) The values placed on people that are consecrated are uniform, based on the value of the body if sold as a slave; there’s no class system where someone from an upper class, or who is perceived to have accomplished more, has a higher value than others. (3) Even when going beyond what is required, such as donating to the Temple beyond the yearly half-shekel, there are guidelines. We can’t just make up how we serve God; besides fulfilling our requirements (the mitzvos), we must stay within the religious structure the Torah sets for us.

That last idea can be gleaned from the offerings too, as even voluntary offerings must follow the guidelines set for those that are obligatory. But we can easily understand why the way offerings are brought needs to be consistent, requiring that an olah (offering) be brought the same way whether it is an obligation or voluntary—as opposed to things like donations, where placing a higher value on someone considered “elite,” and therefore raising more funds for the Temple treasury, might have been considered laudable, when it’s actually problematic. The goal isn’t to “feel” holy, it’s to be holy, and to accomplish that we need to make sure to remain within the system the Torah set forth.

In the end (pardon the pun), all these suggestions have merit. Sefer Vayikra doesn’t conclude with the curses, and the section it does conclude with teaches us how to respond in times of need (giving charity and rededicating ourselves to God). In the process, it also teaches us other valuable lessons—such as treating everyone equally and always working within the Torah’s guidelines, lessons worthy of inclusion in God’s final communication with Moshe on Mt. Sinai.


Rabbi Dov Kramer looks forward to being able to donate to the Temple treasury.

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