In this week’s sedra, we learn that the metzora was required to go through a long process of healing and purification. As part of the process, he had to bring the sacrifices specified in the text: ”… two male lambs and one ewe lamb a year old, olive oil for a grain offering, and one log of oil” (Leviticus 14:10).
This is no small amount of offerings! What if he was poor and couldn’t afford all these offerings? So the Torah provides a more considerate alternative, as we read later on in verses 21-22: “If, however, he is poor and cannot afford these, he must take one male lamb as a guilt offering … together with a tenth of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with olive oil for a grain offering, a log of oil, and two doves or two young pigeons, such as he can afford.”
Similar cases of alternatives for sacrifices can be found in two other places - in Ch.5 (in the matter of oaths and impurity) and Ch.12 (in the sacrifice of the woman in labour). In both these cases, the offerings which must be brought are connected to the social standing of the person bringing them.
In ancient Mesopotamia, sacrifice was not perceived as a unilateral action, but rather as a conduit of communication between man and God. On one side stood man, who gave of his own, and on the other God, who returned the favour to man, through signs, which the priest or diviner interpreted. Just as each man brought a different sacrifice, depending on his social status, so God received the sacrifice in a manner relative to each man.
The Torah recognises differences in social status, as we see in the case of the metsora. At times it is actually the material inequality – as in the optional sacrificial offerings of the wealthy and poor – which creates equality of opportunity. Just as any person can become a metsora, so each person must have an equal opportunity to purify himself. This equal opportunity is expressed through the social distinction guiding the sacrifice that each person must bring, so those who cannot afford a large animal are told that they can bring a bird instead. By being aware of social distinctions we can ensure that each person’s offering is valued and that they are not meant to feel humiliated or rejected by society.