Parshat Vayikra

Torah Reading for Week of March 6-12, 2011

“The Gift is in the Giving:  Paths to Holiness”
By Batshir Torchio, AJRCA Second Year Rabbinic Student

With a loving and careful inward turn of the right-hand etz chaim, the p’sukim of Exodus wind away for another year and the columns of Leviticus unfold.  This third book of the Torah is often reputed as tough, unappetizing gristle.  The pun is intended.  Throughout Torat Kohanim (“the priestly instruction”) are found compilations of laws, detailed ritual observances, and punctilious prescriptions concerning sacrifices that cause many a b’nai mitzvah to recoil at its cover.  Vayikra, the Hebrew name for Leviticus, often rates a distant fifth place to the scintillating plots and poetry of its neighboring narratives.  Just five verses into the opening chapter of this week’s parasha, a bull is slaughtered and sectioned (v’shochat et ben ha’bakar), its blood sprinkled against the altar (v’zarku et ha’dam), and a pigeon’s head pinched off (u’malak et rosho) in preparation for olah korban, a burnt offering.   A little farther in, we find detailed directions regarding bodily discharges, skin diseases, swarming, creeping things, and mold.  As Baruch Levine, NYU professor emeritus of Near Eastern history attests, Leviticus is a difficult book to read with appreciation.  “Its main subject matter – animal offerings and ritual impurity – seems remote from contemporary concerns.”  How are we to understand the ritual commandments and sacrificial worship performed by the priests at the Tent of Meeting?  How are the hundreds of precepts found in Leviticus relevant, and how do we endeavor to appreciate all that Torah presents?  As a skilled and gentle teacher of mine suggests, when the text does not readily yield up meaning, we need to slow down in order to discover vistas and values that still address the conundrums of our own lives with renewed meaning.   It is guided by this wisdom that I invite you to consider a central theme found in this week’s parasha, Vayikra.

The portion delineates the sacrificial system that will take place in the just completed Tabernacle. The sacrifices are neatly divided into three categories: the korban olah (elevation offering), the korban minchah (meal offering), and the korban shelamim (peace offering).  The second half of the portion beginning in chapter 4 discusses the required chatat (sin) and asham (guilt) offerings to be brought in atonement for unintentional transgressions. The word korban makes its appearance, along with a related verb form, at the very outset of our parasha. “When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock” (Leviticus 1:2).  As the Hebrew language and its nuances get to the very heart of understanding myriad meanings in the text, it is important to consider the Hebrew word of korban beyond its common biblical translation.  The root kuf-resh-bet can mean “approach”, “being near”, and “come close”.  Korban then can be read as “sacrifice”, “a near-offering” and the cognate verb yakriv as “brings-near.”  For our ancestors, one of many devastating effects of sin is that it draws us away from G-d, and of equal concern, contamination of the new Tabernacle through transgression, which they believed would cause G-d to vacate the premises. Leviticus provides a safeguard against that possibility in the form of different kinds of korbanot. From this perspective, the sacrifice of defect-free oxen (a bull or cow), sheep (a ram or ewe), goats (a buck or doe), turtledoves and pigeons (non-raptorial birds), or grain offerings serve several important purposes — psychological, spiritual, and purely practical. The korbanot act as a medium for effecting and restoring closeness to one another and to G-d.  It was true for our ancestors as it is apparent today that humans are the ultimate source of alienation and impurity, and we are equally empowered to restore purity and once again embrace holiness.

In reflecting on the value of korbanot, Rabbi Shefa Gold describes our need to correct specific imbalances or diseases of the soul.  She writes, “Each spiritual disease from which we suffer removes us from G-d’s Presence.” Bringing ourselves near again to G-d through offerings is a powerful and effective means of engaging all of the senses.  The same is true for Ramban who taught that the sacrificial ritual serves to elevate all of our sensual instincts to the level of holiness, which ultimately bring us closer to G-d.  For Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the individual who dedicated a korban found great reward in a closer, more powerful connection to G-d and the community.  “In bringing a korban,” he wrote, “what was given paled in comparison to what was gained.”  For Hirsch, use of the term “sacrifice” implies the giving of something that is of value to oneself for the benefit of another, or of having to do without something of value, ideas which are for him not only absent from the nature and idea of a korban but are diametrically opposed to it.

Ramban found the power of the korbanot in its unique ability to provide both a dwelling place for G-d (access to Divinity) and a means to prevent the mishkan from being destroyed.  Should we mess up, we are able to gain atonement through the intricate, detailed act of sacrifice. A korban served as a vehicle for the community and individual to connect to the highest levels of G-d’s unity possible. This is also the understanding of the Maharal who teaches that Sefer Vayikra “is the idea of our awe and deepest appreciation through bringing back to G-d the best of what we have, and realizing at a much deeper level that G-d is the creator and sustainer of all.”

In later rabbinic literature (and in the absence of a designated altar and the Temple) the meaning of sacrifices shifts and becomes the basis of a new way of atoning, reconciling, and praising G-d. As the Gemara describes, the sacrificial system becomes the framework for prayer service, a sentiment echoed in the writings of many of the prophets.  (See Hosea 14:2).  As Max Diamont notes, “What the prophets said was remarkable for their time, that ritual and cult in themselves were of no value to G-d.  They said that G-d wanted high moral standards from humankind.”

Perhaps this week, as the words of Vayikra are once again brought to life, you might imagine a time when you presented something of great value to a dear friend, a parent, your teacher, your beloved – a freshly baked challah, your time, creative powers, money, or an item of unique personal significance.  The power in the exchange, as elaborated by the 15th century Italian commentator, Sforno, is its ability to bring true holiness into our lives.

Several things intrigue and excite me about the adoption and implementation of the sacrificial system, including the evolution of the practice away from idol worship toward a means for manifesting Divine holiness.  Judaism continues to affirm, fashion and sustain a monotheistic faith system through striking innovations.  Modern Judaism continues to take a different approach and to find new ways to stay on old paths.  Prayer replaced sacrifice, and the local synagogue (and our dining room tables) replaced the centralized Temple.  I’m thankful for that, and inspired by the memory of korbanot to pursue holiness, purity, and balance in my relationship with self, other, and the Divine.

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