An Offering of Fine Flour
The entire Torah portion is devoted to describing the various offerings that were brought by klal Yisrael in the Mishkan and later in the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem. Let us try, through the wisdom of our Sages, to gain an understanding of the atonement extended by these offerings:
And let him return to God, and He will have mercy upon him (Yeshayahu 55:7) - there is a dispute between the Rabbis and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: The Rabbis say that God showed every variety of atonement to Avraham Avinu, except for the tenth of an eifah measure of fine flour. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that God showed even the flour offering to Avraham Avinu...
And to our God, for He forgives profusely (ibid.) - Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said in the name of Rabbi Zeira, "God will even extend [literally, 'overlook'] to us one extra atonement of His own; this is the tenth of an eifah of fine flour." (Vayikra Rabbah 3:3)
Some explanation is needed here to understand the context of the midrash. In Parashas Lech Lecha, Avraham had a vision known as the Bris bein HaBesarim (Covenant between the Parts), in which he was shown a variety of animals divided into pieces. This has many interpretations, one of which is that Avraham saw all of the offering which would eventually provide atonement for his descendants. The Rabbis in the above midrash dispute whether or not the flour offerings brought for certain sins were included in the vision.
* * *
OIL AND FRANKINCENSE
This flour offering consisted of just one-tenth of an eifah of flour. There was no oil or frankincense accompanying it, as it was the plain offering brought by a sinner. To understand this more clearly, let us consider two other midrashim:
[What lies behind the various laws of the flour offering?] One should not be tempted to say, "I'll go and do some dreadful things, and then I'll bring a flour offering on a pan [drenched with oil], and God will love me." Instead, God says to him, "My son, why did you not drench your deeds with words of Torah?" [For then the oil would have some meaning,] for oil always means Torah and good deeds... (Ibid., 7)
So when the Torah mandates that no oil be applied to the offering, this symbolizes the sinner's lowly state. His acts are not imbued with Torah and good deeds, and so he must bring dry flour. With respect to the frankincense, we learn that in the case of the offering of a sotah (a woman suspected of adultery):
...he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense on it...(Bemidbar 5:15)
Nor put frankincense on it - as the frankincense is a remembrance of the Matriarchs, as the verse says, ...I will go and take myself to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of frankincense (Shir HaShirim 4:6). The mountain of myrrh - this represents the Patriarchs. The hill of frankincense - this represents the Matriarchs. (Bemidbar Rabbah 9:13)
We may assume that the symbolism of frankincense is universal; wherever it is required, the character of the Matriarchs is implied, and wherever it is absent, their holy character is absent. Armed with all of this information - that our flour offering lacks oil and frankincense and what this lack symbolizes - we may now proceed to understand the original midrash.
* * *
It should be obvious that the entire system of offerings was a great gift from God, an act of chesed extended by Him to us. In reality, the sinner deserves to be treated with strict judgment and receive the punishment, often the death penalty, which was mandated by the Torah for his heinous act. Instead, God extends His grace to us and provides us with various means of atonement, particularly the animal and plant offerings which were brought to the Beis HaMikdash. We now understand why it was Avraham Avinu, rather than either of the other Avos, who was shown a vision of the offerings, for it was he who exemplified the characteristic of chesed, which the offerings so strongly represent.
This leads us to the plain flour offering. We have already seen that this offering had neither oil nor frankincense to accompany it, symbolizing the fact that it was an atonement for a person who possessed neither Torah or good deeds (no oil), nor any merit remaining from the Patriarchs or Matriarchs (no frankincense). For such a person, it is possible that the Divine chesed is insufficient to provide him with atonement, for he has so very little of his own merit.
It is important to realize that the chesed of God is not arbitrary. It is not simply absolution for every behavior, however appalling. The chesed must have some relationship to din (Divine judgment); that is, while the recipient's deeds would not survive close scrutiny, he must at least merit God's grace. Without this condition, the chesed of God would simply be a license to do anything, as one would always be confident of God's later forgiveness. Indeed, even with respect to Avraham, the man of chesed, we see that God says:
For I know him, that he will instruct his children and his household after him, and they will keep the way of God to do justice and judgment...(Bereishis 15:19)
Avraham realized that man cannot live without meriting the chesed of God. He thus commanded his family "to do justice and judgment." As such, according to the view of the Rabbis in the midrash, God did not show Avraham the flour offering in his vision, for the atonement it offered went beyond his purview of the limits of Divine chesed, as it extended credit even to the most unworthy people.
On the other hand, according to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, God did show the flour offering to Avraham. This is a slightly different way of looking at the issue. It is obvious that the flour offering was brought by the sinner after he had atoned, for if not, the offering of an evil person is an abomination... (Mishlei 15:8)
The person has realized the wickedness of his ways and has started on the road back to God; he is no longer entirely outside the system and is once again worthy of God's chesed. Although he has neither Torah nor good deeds to his name as yet, we may assume that his initial impetus to repent qualifies him for Divine consideration. This corresponds to one aspect of Avraham's life of chesed, in which he strove to bring even the most distant people toward an appreciation of God. As we learn, Avraham left his birthplace with all of his family and possessions, together with:
...the souls they had made in Charan... (Bereishis 12:5)
The souls they had made in Charan - whom they had brought under the wings of the Divine Presence. Avraham converted the men; Sarah converted the women... (Rashi loc. cit.)
So according to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the chesed extended to the sinner with no apparent merits was still compatible with the worldview of Avraham, and thus God showed him the flour offering in his vision. It remains for us to consider the last section of the midrash with which we began:
Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said in the name of Rabbi Zeira, "God will even extend [literally, 'overlook'] to us one extra atonement of His own; this is the tenth of an eifah of fine flour." (Vayikra Rabbah 3:3)
This view considers the matter from yet another perspective: even without teshuvah, God extends a special gift to every Jew. This gift is an inherent Godliness which is always present within each of us and enables us to receive Divine chesed regardless of any other factors. Thus, when we sin we are always able to benefit from God's beneficence, irrespective of our current mind-set. This is the extra atonement which God gives to each of us.
The message this teaches us is obvious: there is always hope. However far a Jew is from his Creator, however few his merits, however devoid he may be of Torah and good deeds, there is hope. God will never forsake any individual. All we have to do is turn our hearts toward Him and resolve to begin the journey back to observance and holiness. Then God will surely extend his chesed and deal kindly with us.