The Book of Leviticus assumes that offerings of animals and grain, sometimes accompanied by libations of wine or oil, are appropriate expressions of gratitude toward God and mechanisms through which one atones for sin. Vayikra, the opening parashah of Leviticus, offers Israel instructions on the proper way to offer sacrifices, both individually and as a community. These instructions include a list of various types of voluntary and mandated offerings, the proper animals for each type of offering, and the steps involved in those offerings.
At first glance, it is challenging to find meaning or inspiration in this parashah. The idea of slaughtering animals, dashing their blood on an altar, and burning portions of their flesh seems pointless at best and offensive at worst. To appreciate this material, we need to look past the mode of sacrifice to the intention behind it; while the former may no longer resonate with us, the latter certainly does.
What were the Israelites trying to accomplish through animal sacrifice? Simply put, they were trying to reach beyond the known to communicate with the unknown – with the Divine. In Hebrew, the generic word for an offering is korban, which includes the root k-r-b, “to draw near.” The sacrificial system was designed to allow every Israelite to draw near to God. Prescribed offerings assumed that there were times when a person needed to reconnect with God; voluntary offerings provided individuals freedom to initiate or deepen that sense of connection.
The diverse types of offerings also attest to the variety of ways we might imagine and connect with God. The olah offering was wholly burnt on the altar, symbolizing and concretizing the desire to give fully of oneself to the Divine. Other offerings were partly burnt on the altar and partly consumed by the individual who brought it, connecting them to God through a shared “meal.”
What key lessons we can take from this parashah?
First, consider the makeup of offerings. Some offerings require animals, while others make use of mixtures of flour, grains, oil, and frankincense, which is made from resin. Israelite offerings, therefore, include things in their natural state and things that have been processed by human beings. Our relationship with God can be mediated through both the natural world and through the work of our hands. We can experience God both through nature (Creation) and through our own acts of production and creativity.
Second, while offerings were presented by the priests, every Israelite could bring offerings on their own behalf. In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Tamara Eskenazi notes that the word adam in Leviticus 1:2 should be understood not as “a man [who presents an offering],” but as “a human being,” meaning women could also bring offerings. Each of us, regardless of our gender identity, can connect with the Divine.
This equality is reinforced by Midrash Tanhum;, Vayikra 5 points out that the word used for a person in Leviticus 2:1 is nefesh, which also means “life.” This asserts that when a person brings even an offering of flour or grain, the least costly of offerings, God responds to the offering “as if the individual had offered their own life.”
Finally, sacrifice offered a concrete avenue for relating to an unseen and unknowable Being. We understandably view prayer as a more civilized mode of connecting to the Divine than animal sacrifice. However, when we let go of our discomfort with the sacrificial system for a moment, we can acknowledge the power it held for the Israelites. The very elements that disturb us – and may have disturbed some ancients – make sacrifice so visceral and captivating. When an individual was overcome with guilt or shame, they were able to experience a deeply restorative sense of relief from placing their hands on an animal, seeing its blood on the altar, and knowing that this ritual expiated their sin. Just as we derive satisfaction from giving a gift to someone who has helped us, a person who felt profound gratitude to God derived satisfaction from giving God something tangible.
While we will never turn to animal offerings to reach out to God, the opening chapters of Leviticus ask us to consider what it means to strive to connect with the Divine, and how we imbue our religious experience with power and meaning.