Sacrifice and Charity

Sacrifice and Charitable Giving: Vayikra Leviticus 1:1 – 5:36
Howard Adelman

When I was a youngster, I dreaded when we started reading Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. I found it such a bore. This year, it perked some interest. I thought I would write about the depiction of when leaders sin, whereas with everyone else the issue is if they sin. It is as if, qua leader, you were expected to sin and the only issue was when.

But as interesting as that issue is theologically and politically, I will not write about it this year. Instead I will write about the difference between sacrifice and charitable offerings or donations. Because I am going away and will not be back until after the due date for filing my taxes, I had my tax return completed early and began reviewing my return this morning. I noticed there was no entry for deductions for donations and gifts. I had given my accountant a pile of charitable tax receipts, but there was no entry for the total that I could find. Had he slipped up or was the entry where I could not find it? I will email him, but it did get me to think about the relationship of charitable killing to charitable giving.

Both sacrifice and charitable giving must be done of one’s free will. A compulsory assessment is not a charitable donation unless there is a free will component. We may give, but we do not just have to. If we give, the holy ordinances laid down apply. Often the sermons at this time of year in synagogues will make references to one’s charitable giving, especially to the synagogue, as the historical successor to the burnt offerings and sacrifices in the ancient temple. It is said that congregants contribute to a synagogue in a system similar to the ancient Israeli practice of korbanot. I question the connection, except for the common elements of a free will and the concept that you give in accordance with your means.

Look at even some of the obvious differences:

  1. A Temple offering, whether a bull or a sheep, a goat or a pigeon, a turtle dove or a  meal offerings, must be unblemished and be the best of your animals or, if a meal offering, made by the finest oils and flour; it is not a sacrifice if you are giving what you do not want anyway. Who checks whether money offered for charity is legitimate or not?
  2. There seems to be a superficial resemblance between bringing a sacrifice to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting where a judgement will be made whether what is offered qualifies. After all, the contemporary Tent of Meeting, Parliament, decides which donations meet specific requirements. Except, not quite. Parliament decides which charities qualify and that determines whether a charitable donation qualifies. There is no scrutinizing of the motives of the donor or the purity of the gift, just of the services performed by the organization claiming to be a charity.
  3. The determination of whether an organization is a charity is made by Parliament on behalf of the people; a sacrifice made before the Tent of Meeting is determined as qualified by the priest, but it is on behalf of the Lord, not the people.
  4. A sin or guilt offering is given to expiate sin; a charitable donation may be given to expiate sin – as viewed in all those scenes in movies when a priest orders a confessor to say ten Hail Marys and drop ten dollars in the charitable box to expiate his or her sin. However, normally, a donation is considered worthy if the organization to which it is given is judged worthy, that is, whether it serves good and charitable purposes in health, education or welfare. Charity is given to make up for sin and shortcomings not to balance accounts in the soul of the giver.
  5. When you offer a sacrifice, one presumes the person offering the sacrifice feels deep guilt. In charitable giving, the presumption, though not the actuality probably, is that an individual gives out of “purity of heart” and is meant to feel good in the giving.
  6. When offering a sacrifice at the entry to the Tent of Meeting, given the way the carcass of the dead animal was banged around and the blood scattered, the place had to stink like a slaughter house, even if the odour was “pleasing to the Lord.” {That in itself is worthy of a separate blog – why the Lord our God finds the smells of a slaughterhouse and a smokehouse so pleasing and why the priest as a ritual slaughterer is remote rather than social or pastoral, a severe rather than a comforting and instructional individual.) A charity as a place to donate, by contrast, should be squeaky clean compared to the altar in front of the Tent of Meeting.
  7. Vayikra does not, literally, mean sacrifice; it means “drawing closer to the Lord.” The point of offering a sacrifice is to be near God, to experience God’s presence. In our contemporary culture, do we experience God’s presence through charitable giving? Perhaps sometimes. But I suspect charity is mostly offered by those who are already close to or actually in the presence of God.
  8. The major difference between the two forms of giving is that, in our modern world, we try to take the sacrifice out of charitable giving and most of us give only when it really costs us very little, when there is little pain in the process. Sacrifice always entails pain, pain of a poor shepherd in giving up the best of his herd for a sacrifice and pain experienced by the animal or bird sacrificed. Modern modes of appealing for a charitable offering are usually designed to make the giving as painless as possible.
  9. In a sacrifice, other than what the priest gets to eat, everything goes up in smoke; a charitable offering is intended to serve a functional purpose over and above the services provided by a welfare state. In the evaluation of charities, a key measure of success is the degree to which the charity contributes to the community with the fewest proportion of expenses spent on administration. In charity, you are supposed to get a “bang for your buck.” Sacrifice, in contrast, is a negative sum game according to measurable standards.
  10. You may give a sacrifice in celebration of and, hopefully, the continuous prospect of good fortune. In the contemporary world, charitable giving is often a display of good fortune.

Last evening we watched an Indian film, Amal. Amal is a rickshaw driver, those three wheel open crosses between a motorcycle and a taxi that replaced the two-wheeled pulled tilted version; the auto baya eased the burden on these traditionally illiterate workers. In the film, rickshaw drivers are generally portrayed as shifty and dishonest, but Amal has a heart of pure gold. In the film, his act of charity is truly a sacrifice and there is no indication that he can get a tax deduction for his contribution.

I am not Amal. I will call my accountant to ensure that I receive the appropriate credit from my taxes for my charitable contributions.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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