Menahot, Chapter Thirteen, Mishnah Eleven
The final mishnah of Menahot contains what is perhaps one of the most important religious messages found in the entire Mishnah. Its final phrase is quoted quite frequently by Jewish thinkers, who employ it in many different contexts. I shall explain it here in the introduction.
The Torah uses the phrase An offering made by fire of pleasing odor in reference to three different sacrifices: 1) the olah from cattle (herd or flock animals), which would cost a lot; 2) the olah of birds, which cost far less; 3) and the minhah, which would cost even less than birds. All three of these are pleasing to God, even though some cost far more than do the other. This teaches that God doesnt care how much the sacrifice costs. What God cares about is that the person directs his heart to heaven meaning offers the sacrifice with the correct intention. If an expensive sacrifice helps one direct ones heart to heaven, then it would be pleasing. But if it is offered for the wrong reason, then the mishnah seems to say that it is not actually pleasing to God.
It is said of the olah of cattle, An offering made by fire of pleasing odor (Leviticus 1:9); and of the olah of birds, An offering made by fire of pleasing odor (vs. 17); and of the minhah, An offering made by fire of pleasing odor (Leviticus 2:2): to teach you that it is the same whether one offers much or little, so long as one directs ones heart to heaven.
Congratulations! We have finished Tractate Menahot!
It is a tradition at this point to thank God for helping us finish learning the tractate and to commit ourselves to going back and relearning it, so that we may not forget it and so that its lessons will stay with us for all of our lives.
It is no accident that the last mishnah of the tractate finishes with the message that we learned today. After having learned 14 chapters of Zevahim and 13 chapters of Menahot, there is a grave danger that one could learn that all God cares about, and all that is important in Judaism, is bringing the proper sacrifice in the proper manner. Our mishnah teaches that the important issue is the proper intent, that ones intent in sacrifice should be to worship God. This is not to deny that that the minutiae of rules are extremely important, both in the eyes of the rabbis and surely in the eyes of the priests who served in the Temple while it still stood. Rather, what todays mishnah seems to say is that the rules are an outer manifestation of the inner kavannah, intent, of the worshipper. Without following the rules, there is no way to bring that intent into the world. But without the intent, the rules are just empty exercises devoid of meaning. I believe that this is a message that is as true of Judaism today as it was in Temple times.
Mishnah Menahot has probably been a great challenge for many of you; I know it was for me. So please accept an extra congratulations on completing it. Tomorrow we begin Hullin, the one tractate in all of Seder Kodashim that does not deal with sacrifices or the Temple.