If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall make his offering a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in his behalf before Adonai. He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in his behalf, in expiation for him. The bull shall be slaughtered before Adonai; and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The burnt offering shall be flayed and cut up into sections. The sons of Aaron the priest…shall lay out the sections with the head and the suet on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar. Its entrails and legs shall be washed with water, and the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to Adonai . (Leviticus 1:3-9)
There are many ways that a person can draw close to God. Today, the most common ways include prayer and worship, study, and acts of loving-kindness. If we study the text of Leviticus, we are shown the way of ritual sacrifice. But how are we, as twenty-first century human beings, even to begin to understand how choosing an animal and having it slaughtered and consumed by fire could cause our ancestors to draw close to God? We might imagine the drama of the events and find ourselves curious about the sights and smells that filled the Tent of Meeting and later the Temple as a result, but how can we find a way to God through this ancient Jewish custom?
Some Jews experience drawing close to God by paying great and detailed attention to the way in which they live their lives as Jews. Adhering closely to the details of the mitzvot (commandments) is one way in which they find meaning in life and thus may encounter God. Perhaps it is for these people that the text goes into such great detail about how the sacrificial animal was prepared. In a former generation, children often began their Bible studies by reading from Leviticus. The reasoning was that by learning details-even "gory" details-a child who is not yet able to think abstractly could draw close to God.
Others use their senses to help them draw close to God. They can imagine how the smells, sounds, and sights of the ceremony may have impacted in unique and special ways on the senses of those who witnessed the sacrifices, thus helping them open up to God's presence. We can also imagine how this sensory experience would have remained with the ancient worshipers, creating an aesthetic memory that, when triggered, allowed them to relive the experience of drawing close to God.
A close reading of the text suggests other ways in which we can draw close to God. In verse 4, the text says that the one who brings the olah (burnt offering) should place his hand upon the head of the animal, "thus formally designating the animal as his sacrifice" (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: UAHC Press, 1981, p. 757) and signifying that the animal was from the person who brought it. But does this act also signify something else? Is not the act of placing one's hand upon the head of the living animal similar to what we parents do when we bless our children on Shabbat?
In addition, when a person placed his hand upon the head of the animal he brought, the life of that animal was still present, its heart was still beating, and its skin was still warm. But soon that same animal was to be killed, cut up, and burnt upon the altar. What a stark reminder of the fragility of life, of the momentary powerlessness and yet awesome power of being a human! Perhaps in that moment, the penitent understood God's power and love, and by placing his hand upon the head of the still-living sacrificial animal, he was able to draw close to God. This emotional response was further heightened by the sprinkling of the blood of the animal all around the altar.
Another way of drawing close to God lay in the act of choosing the perfect animal-"a male without blemish." This commandment to choose the best of one's animals reminded the penitent that service to God requires offering one's entire soul and being-the very best that one has to offer. The prophet Malachi scolded Jews who brought sickly or lame animals to sacrifice (Malachi 1:8). It is possible to imagine the conflict a person might have felt about which animal to bring to God and which to leave behind in the herd. This internal conflict, which required honesty in choosing the perfect animal for God, could have led the penitent to experience love and respect for and, therefore, a closer connection with God.
Lastly, in the case of the olah, the animal is completely burned except for the hide. Thus, as both Rashi and Radah point out, olah, which means "goes up," is an offering that is completely burned because it went up in smoke to God. How liberating it must have felt to stand and watch the olah, knowing that this sacrifice bore with it the guilt and sin one might have been holding inside! The freeing of these emotions-the evaporation into the air as smoke-could leave a person feeling elevated and lighter, allowing awe, wonder, and gratitude to fill the space that guilt once held.
Today, as we study these words, we can perhaps re-create the feelings, the memories, the spiritual elevation, and the awe that they evoked. As a result, through study, prayer, and deeds of loving-kindness, we, too, can wholeheartedly draw closer to God.
BY THE WAY
- The custom is to teach small children Leviticus first rather than beginning with Genesis. The reason is that the little children are pure and the sacrifices are pure. Let the pure ones deal with purity. (Leviticus Rabbah, cited in Torah Gems, volume II, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Tel Aviv: Y. Orenstein, "Yavneh" Publishing House Ltd., 1998, p. 241)
- "When any of you presents an offering of cattle to Adonai…" [Leviticus 1:2]. If you bring yourself- if you wish to help any cause-see that it is "an offering…to Adonai"-that it is a lofty and noble cause, because people often waste their time and effort on worthless and unimportant causes. (Rabbi Y. Eiger, cited in Torah Gems, volume II, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Tel Aviv: Y. Orenstein, "Yavneh" Publishing House Ltd., 1998, p. 243)
- Other valuable commentary can be found in Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, volume II, New York: UAHC Press, 1990, pp. 97-103, and Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Leviticus, World Zionist Organization, 1981.
Can you imagine standing at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and laying your hand on the head of your sacrificial animal?
Are you awed or horrified by the details of this sacrifice?
How might you draw closer to God through the reading of Leviticus 1:3-9? In what other ways do you find yourself drawing close to God?
Dr. Sherry H. Blumberg, RJE, is the director of education at Congregation Shalom, Milwaukee, WI.