The Torah [Vayikra 5:1-13] describes a particular type of offering known as “קרבן עולה ויורד” or the “Rising and falling offering”. This is an atonement offering that is brought to complete a teshuvah process for a few specific sins including taking an oath in vain and entering the Beis Hamikdash while forgetting that one is impure.
The reference of rising and falling is to the value of the offering. If the one seeking atonement is wealthy, an animal offering is brought. If he (or she) is of lesser financial means, the korban is two doves. And, finally, if the penitent possesses even fewer funds, they may fulfill the korban with a flour offering.
The sliding scale nature of the korban is certainly very understandable – after all, every man should pay according to his means. There is, however, a slight difficulty in understanding the justice of this method. The Talmud [tractate kerisus 27b, quoted by Rashi here] teaches that if a person committed these sins while wealthy and subsequently fell from financial grace, they need only bring the lesser korban. The opposite also holds true, if the sinner was impoverished and received a windfall, then a wealthy person’s offering is required.
Shouldn’t the sinner be responsible to bring the level of offering that corresponds to his financial status at the time of the sin ?
The answer lies in an understanding of what any korban is coming to accomplish. If we (mistakenly) believe that a sin offering is somehow making restitution for the crime committed – then we would be justified in believing that the sinner’s level of wealth at the time of the sin matters. But in truth, the korban is not coming to replace anything that was lost. It is, rather, coming to repair a relationship that was broken. As such, it should, no – must, take into account where the penitent is standing now. Because it is only from his current position that the former sinner must pursue G-d and seek to draw close to him.
Perhaps this is another allusion to the name of the offering. In our spirituality, we all rise and fall – if we dwell on former glories we may fail to conquer our current hurdles. But once we realize that we can always start from where we find ourselves right now – we can begin to re-build our spirituality and once again soar to staggering hights.