While the Zohar is rightly considered the classic of mystical literature, its presentation as a commentary on the Torah is no less valuable as a textual resource. As an example, the Zohar (Va-Yikra 8b) cites a rhetorical question attributed to Rabbi Yossi: Why should there be three kinds of burnt offerings: one from the herd (Leviticus 1:3), another from the flock (Leviticus 1:10), and another from fowl (Leviticus 1:14)? The Zohar assumes that while menus are welcome in other situations, when it comes to religious ritual, uniformity is preferred. Religious ritual is intended to bring people together (that is the meaning of the Latin religio: to bind together) and that purpose would be undermined by a choice of options.
The Zohar offers two explanations. According to Rabbi Yossi, ordinarily uniformity of practice is preferred. But for the burnt offerings, an exception is in order. The three kinds of burnt offerings can accommodate three socio-economic levels. “If a man can afford, he brings an ox, and if he cannot afford an ox, he brings a sheep, and if he cannot afford a sheep he brings a fowl.” The operative rule is: “God does not demand of man more than he can perform.” While this principle applies to affordability, it is easy to see how it might apply to predilections as well. The commandments are not so difficult so that only supermen can follow them. All can practice Judaism: no matter one’s status or stature.
The second explanation is attributed to Rabbi Elazar who contends that Rabbi Yossi is correct but he does not go far enough. The three different kinds of burnt offering correspond to the nature of the sins committed by those in each socio-economic level. “A rich man puffed up with his wealth was to brings an ox, because his thoughts were likely to be the most sinful. A man of moderate means brought a sheep because he was not so prone to sin; while a poor man, who was the most timid of all, brought the smallest offering of all. And the offering of each was appraised by God as its true value.”
Rabbi Elazar’s presupposition is that the higher one’s income, the greater the likelihood of sin. His justification seems to be that with success comes increased narcissism. The more one makes, the more likely the successful person will ascribe his good fortune to his or her own skills and abilities. And once a person takes personal credit for success, given his or her inflated ego, all reason for circumspection disappears. Rabbi Elazar is not condemning the accumulation of wealth. He is, however, warning against the challenge that comes with it.
Both these thoughtful and even provocative interpretations emerge from a portion about sacrifices. The grander lesson here is that even the most seemingly trivial passages can be the source of great wisdom if only the reader is open to that possibility.