When faced with an assemblage of individuals—a community, a nation, a random crowd—our tendency is to relate to them in terms of their “lowest common denominator.” Some are more knowledgeable, others less so; some are rich, others poor; some are virtuous, others delinquent. So the teacher will take care not to speak beyond the range of his least knowledgeable pupils, the businessman will set the price of his merchandise with a mind to the least affluent among his potential customers, and banks will employ a security system to deter the least moral in the community.
In other words, we tend to view our qualities as additions or premiums to our basic being. We are all born ignorant; some gain a little knowledge, others more. We are all born penniless; some gain a modicum of wealth, others more. We are all born selfish, and are trained to a greater or lesser degree of morality. And so on.
But there also exists another perspective on man: the human being as the vessel of immense potential, with all human achievements as but partial realizations of this potential. In other words, our “common denominator” is as great—indeed, greater than—what we see in the most accomplished human being on earth. This is the vision of humanity expressed by a series of laws in the Torah relating to the korban oleh v’yored, the “sliding scale” offering.
Most of the korbanot (“offerings”) mandated by the Torah are of a fixed nature. In certain cases, the Torah commands to bring a yearling lamb accompanied by specified amounts of meal, wine and oil; in others, a pair of doves; and so on. The korban oleh v’yored (literally, “the ascending and descending offering”) is an exception to this rule. In six cases the Torah instructs that an offering be made in atonement, but says that the content of the offering should be determined by the person’s financial capacity. A woman after childbirth is obligated to bring two offerings—a lamb and a dove; but if she is poor, she is to bring two doves instead. A cured metzora (“leper”), undergoing purification from his state of impurity, must bring two lambs and a ewe; but if he is a poor man, he is to bring a lamb and two doves. And, in the case of one who transgresses a “witness’ oath,” one who inadvertently swears falsely, or one who inadvertently enters the Holy Temple or eats sacred food (kodashim) in a state of ritual impurity, there are three “steps” on the scale: a ewe or she-goat for the most affluent, a pair of doves for a penitent of lesser means, and a meal offering for the most impoverished.
These offerings are commanded by the Torah as a personal obligation upon the individual. However, another person may assume the obligation in his stead. In such a case, the law stipulates that the type of offering is determined by the wealthier of the two individuals. In the words of Maimonides:
“If a rich man says, ‘I assume the obligation for the offerings of this metzora,’ and the said metzora is a pauper, he must bring a rich man’s offering, since a rich man made the pledge. If a poor man says, ‘I assume the obligation for the offerings of this metzora,’ and the said metzora is wealthy, he must bring a rich man’s offering, since he obligated himself to bring a rich man’s offering.”
One can understand the logic of obligating the donor according to his means. There is also logic in the argument that since the offering must achieve atonement for the metzora, the type of offering should be determined by the metzora’s status. But why employ a “double standard,” following the donor’s status when he is the richer man, and the metzora’s status when he is the wealthier?
There is a profound lesson here—a lesson in our mutual responsibility for each other and in how one is to view a fellow man. Every man is intrinsically “wealthy”; the differences between us are only in the extent to which we actualize this wealth. So when one man assumes responsibility for his fellow, both are elevated to the state of the wealthier one between them. If the “donor” has realized his potential to a greater degree, he stimulates an equal realization in his fellow. And if a “pauper” takes it upon himself to help a “richer” man, he has not assumed an obligation that is beyond his means. For he, too, possesses an equal potential, and his very commitment to his “superior” fellow will serve to actualize this potential and raise him to the level on which he can indeed contribute to his fellow’s life.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Tishrei 26, 5746 (October 10, 1985)
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.
. Leviticus 12:6-8.
. Ibid., 14:10, 21-22.
. Ibid., 5:1-13.
. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Those Requiring Atonement, 5:11.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXVII, pp. 101-106.