Here are some thoughts on Parashat Vayikra.
- Nehama Leibowitz says that the laws of offering sacrifices, with which this portion is filled, are like a "sealed book to us: we comprehend neither their basic meaning nor the purport of their rules and regulations." (New Studies in Vayikra, p. 1) But Jews tend to rise to challenges. There is no mitzvah that might not have its day or its relevance, even offerings of animals and grains as sacrifices.
- Vayikra directs us to maintain an open community with sliding-scale dues. (Leviticus 5:7 ff.) If a person cannot afford cattle, then sheep, goats, and even pigeons are a satisfactory substitute. There are no second-class Israelites, no givers more "equal" than others.
- Vayikra makes it clear that the higher your rank is in the community, the more is expected of you. (Leviticus 4:3, 22) Before we learn what the average Jew is to sacrifice when he sins unwittingly, we are told what the High Priest (the Rabbi?) must do, what the elders (the Executive Committee?) must do, what the chieftains (the Temple Board?) must do if they sin unwittingly. And the Law presumes that leadership also leads to self-criticism and responsibility. Jewish leaders cannot just say that "mistakes were made."
- "Sacrifice" is a poor translation of the Hebrew word korban. Sacrifice means to sustain a loss, whereas korban means "coming close [to God]." The korban system was deeply personal: you offered your animal and you placed your hand on its head (Leviticus 3:2), leading you to feel close to God. We are still trying to come close by attempting to draw people near through small groups, circles, folk tunes, and community building.
- One of the korban offerings is called shelamim. (Leviticus 3:1) Scholars are puzzled by this term. Their best guess is that it is an offering of greeting. But shalom also means "wholeness." Some synagogues today are promoting the wholeness of body, mind, and spirit through outreach, a caring community, and support groups. Could our task today be to offer Jews the ancient shelamim in a new form?
- By outlining what a person who commits a white-collar theft must do (Leviticus 5:20-26), Vayikra concludes by going beyond the inner spirit. First, the guilty party must restore what was taken, at $1.25 on the dollar. Only then can he find forgiveness by sacrificing a ram as a guilt offering.
- Does the sacrificial system with its blood, guts, and priestly prerogatives still disturb you? Then consider how fortunate we are that it contained the seeds of its own demise. Since only the priest was allowed to perform sacrifices and not the average Israelite, sacrifice did not (and never could) become a sign of personal Jewish piety. When the Temple (with its resident priests) was destroyed, sacrifice was replaced by prayer, study, and democratic synagogue life. Thank God!
- Vayikra, metaphorically smells like a slaughterhouse with a barbecue that follows. It reminds us that being religious is a matter of life and death, not just an option. Vayikra insures that this thought occurs to us at least one Shabbat a year.
Rabbi Mark S. Shapiro is rabbi emeritus of B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim of Glenview, IL.
The book of Leviticus begins with Vayikra, this week's parashah. In it, we are given very detailed directions about the sacrificial practices that are to be performed in the Temple in Jerusalem. The olah and minchah offerings asked God for blessing or forgiveness. Zevach shelamim was an offering of well being or peace, which expressed gratitude. The chatat was offered as an atonement for a sin that was committed unintentionally. (Interestingly, the Torah does not permit atonement for a sin that was willfully committed.) The asham, or guilt offering, preceded the restoration of stolen or misappropriated property.
The root of the Hebrew word korban ("sacrifice") means "to draw near" or "to approach." The Torah portion implies that in order for us to become closer to God, we must "draw near" to God. The korbanwas an act of homage and proof of one's love for God. With the destruction of the Temple, however, prayer replaced sacrifice because prayer, the rabbis determined, could be offered wherever people lived, whenever they desired-it did not and does not require a Temple.
Is prayer as it is offered today in our temples and synagogues by our congregants and students a means of drawing near to God? On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we speak of sins that we have committed against God (al chet shechatanu lefanecha). We say that we have "missed the mark." But what about atoning for our unintentional sins against people, forgetting promises or hurting others by the carelessness of our actions? Jacob Milgrom in his book on Leviticus (Anchor Bible, Doubleday Press, New York, 1991) translates the chatat offering as the "purification offering," meaning purification not of the sinner but of the consequences of the sinner's actions. Everything around us is affected as a result of our inadvertent sins.
While visiting the ruins of the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said to his students, "We have a means of atonement that is equal to sacrifice. It is the doing of kind deeds." (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 4) He then quoted Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice."
The root of the word shelamim is shalom, which means "whole" or "complete" (as well as "peace"). Vayikra reminds us that our actions are important. We can draw nearer to God by doing kind deeds. How we act toward others, accepting responsibility for our actions, can serve as our own peace offerings, creating a sense of wholeness within our family, congregation, and community.
At the time of this writing in 1998, Faye L. Tillis was the director of Reform Jewish Education for the then-UAHC Great Lakes Region and the Community Foundation for Jewish Education, Chicago, IL.
Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1–5:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 757–778; Revised Edition, pp. 658–681;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 569–592