Dedicated to the memory of my mother, Victoria Sonsino, z.l., who died on December 25, 2006.
The Book of Leviticus, called Vayikra in Hebrew (after the first word of the chapter), is as difficult to comprehend as it is unpopular in our time. The ancient Rabbis referred to it as torat kohanim (the regulations of the priests). Except for a few sections that cover some moral and social issues (e.g., Leviticus 19), most of Leviticus is dedicated to sacrifices of all kinds, including animals, food and drink, perfumes, and incense. Many of these issues are often obscure and irrelevant in our day.
After the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. and the cessation of the sacrificial system, the Rabbinic sages who inherited the text, believing that it was the word of God, had to interpret it by creating midrashim. In medieval times, even the great Maimonides taught that sacrifices were a concession to primitive times and the way by which the ancient Israelites were weaned away from idolatrous practices into true beliefs ( Guide of the Perplexed 3:32). Rabbi Samuel Sandmel writes, "The accentuation on the man making the offering rather than on the offering itself gives Leviticus a human quality it might otherwise not have" (The Hebrew Scriptures [New York: Knopf, 1963], pp. 388?89).
Orthodox Jews still pray that after the Messiah arrives, sacrifices will once again be offered in the Third Temple. For those of us who do not expect the rebuilding of the Temple or do not find such offerings as relevant or desirable, it becomes a challenge to find a lesson for our time in this old text. In this d'var Torah, I suggest we look at the underlying rationale for sacrifices and derive a lesson of gratitude.
Sacrifices in the Past
The sacrificial system is very old and extends throughout the entire ancient Near East. Scholars are not always in agreement about its original purpose. Some argue that it was simply a means of feeding the gods. Others stress the values of propitiation or reverence. In biblical times, many of the sacrifices were offered as "gifts" to God. Their basic goal was "to formalize or reaffirm and, at times, to repair the relationship between the worshiper and God and between the community of worshipers and God" (Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus [Philadelphia: JPS, 1989], p. xxiv).
When the Israelites, being part of the cultural continuum of the ancient Near East, adopted the system from their neighbors, they imbued the various types of offerings with their own values. The Torah, for example, insists that sacrifices do not obliterate the transgressions in civil contracts or business deals by themselves without making proper amends (Leviticus 5:21ff.), and stresses that the proper sacrifice to God is "a broken spirit" and "a contrite heart" (Psalm 51:19).
When the Temple worship came to an end in 70 c.e., the Israelites felt a tremendous void. The Temple was not only a national shrine but also the cultural and business center of the entire community. Judeans congregated periodically in Jerusalem during festivals and other occasions. The Temple compound was the only place where the pious could "get close" (the real meaning of the Hebrew word korban, wrongly translated as "sacrifice") to the Divine. So, after 70 c.e., there was a need to formalize new means of organized worship and spirituality. A story is told that right after the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai visited the ruins accompanied by Rabbi Y'hoshua. When Y'hoshua started to bewail the end of the sacrificial system that provided atonement for sin, the old sage replied, "Do not grieve, we have another means of atonement that is equal to sacrifice, and that is the doing of good deeds" (Avot D'Rabbi Natan 4).
In our day, we do not offer animal sacrifices to God, but we can relate to some of the values that underlie the old system. Propitiation does not work for us any more, because we do not believe that the divine realm needs or wants our appeasement through food or other objects. But reverence, giving gifts, and particularly gratitude still remain powerful tools for expressing our deepest feelings for everything we have and are.
Our prayer book is replete with sentiments of gratitude to God, who is the ultimate source of our existence. When we rise in the morning, we are expected to recite Modeh Ani, "I am grateful" to God for bringing life to me each and every day. In Birkat HaMazon, the Blessing after Meals, we thank God for sustaining the world with goodness, kindness, and mercy. During the day or at night, through the prayer Modim Anachnu Lach, "We are grateful to You," we thank God "for our souls, which are in Your keeping; for the signs of Your presence we encounter every day; and for Your wondrous gifts at all time."
Life is a divine gift. We are born through no will of our own and die when our time is due. In between, while facing challenges along the way, we encounter many rays of beauty and glory, and these we must acknowledge. No one lives alone, and everyone depends on the goodwill of others. Albert Schweitzer said, "Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." So, we must express our thanks, and do so verbally and often, for our good health, for the companionship we cherish, for our parents and children, for our accomplishments, for everything we have learned from our mothers, fathers, teachers, friends, and students. And then we must turn this sense of gratitude into actions that benefit others. As President John F. Kennedy said, "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D., is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom of Needham, Massachusetts, and a faculty member of the Theology Department at Boston College. You can contact him at email@example.com.