The Mishna toward the end of Masekhet Menachot (110b) observes that the Torah uses the same expression to describe three different kinds of voluntary sacrifices – the animal ola offering, a bird ola offering, and a grain offering (mincha). In reference to all three sacrifices, the Torah writes that the offering is “ishei rei’ach nichoach l-Hashem” – a pleasing offering to God. Despite the fact that an animal is very costly, a bird is relatively inexpensive, and grain is even cheaper, God looks favorably upon all three offerings. On this basis, the Mishna establishes the famous rule, “Echad ha-marbeh ve-echad ha-mam’it u-bilvad she-yekhavein libo la-Shamayim” – “It does not matter whether one does a lot or a little, as long as he directs his heart to Heaven.” One who offers an inexpensive sacrifice is looked upon just as favorably as one who offers a costly sacrifice, as long as he is sincere in his desire to please God.
The Sefat Emet offers an insightful explanation of this rabbinic adage, “Echad ha-marbeh ve-echad ha-mam’it u-bilvad she-yekhavein libo la-Shamayim.” He suggests that Chazal refer here to somebody who settles on “me’at,” on modest spiritual achievements, recognizing his modest stature. The Sefat Emet writes, “One who recognizes his place chooses the small amount which is true over leaping beyond his level.” While on the one hand we must always be ambitiously striving to reach great heights, at the same time, conducting ourselves on a level higher than where we actually are is dishonest and an expression of arrogance. At times, it is far more admirable to be a “mam’it,” to restrict ourselves to modest spiritual achievements, out of an honest recognition of who we are and that we are not yet the people we ideally want to be.
A spiritually conscientious person will often find himself struggling with this issue, finding the delicate balance between ambition and realism, and trying to avoid both complacency as well as arrogant displays of false piety. When do we raise the level of our performance in an effort to continuously grow, and when do we stick to our current lifestyle, realizing that we are not yet ready to take the next step? The Sefat Emet teaches that the answer to that question is given by the Mishna: “u-bilvad she-yekhavein libo la-Shamayim.” The decision itself is less important than the way it was reached. The key factor is “she-yekhavein libo la-Shamayim,” that we are truly and sincerely striving to do the will of God. If we remain stagnant out of complacency and sheer laziness, then there is no justification for our choosing to be a “mam’it” rather than a “marbeh.” But if we do less out of an honest recognition of our current limitations, then we offer a “rei’ach nichoach l-Hashem” no less than a “marbeh.”
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