We begin the third book of the Torah (Vayikra - Leviticus) with a description of five types of sacrifices offered in the Temple. They are: burnt offering, meal offering, sacrifice of well-being, sin offering and guilt offering. While the first three are voluntary, the last two are mandatory for guilty individuals.
The third verse in the first aliyah describes what constitutes an acceptable burnt offering.
If your offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall make your offering a male without blemish. (1:3)
Although the sacrificial system is unfamiliar to us as a form of worship, Rabbi Plaut explains, "Sacrifice was considered both necessary and proper-if performed with sincerity and with due regard for the Torah's other requirements." (638) A burnt offering, olah was brought by an individual to worship God. Why does our verse specify that the animal be without blemish?
Some people may have been sacrificing blemished animals, saving the better one for themselves. The prophet Malachi rails against this, saying the people bring blind, lame or sick animals for sacrifice that they would not dare present to a governor. (Malachi 1:8) Remember the sacrifices of Cain and Abel. Cain brought some of his harvest (Genesis 4:3) while Abel brought the choice of lambs of his flock and their fattest parts (4:4). In seeking to explain why God rejected Cain's offering, commentators point to the distinction between some of and the choice of. God requires the best we have to offer.
God does not require the impossible of us, only our best. Presumably, Cain had better crops to offer. We often may be "showing up" in our lives without really being present. We can participate in meetings, eat dinner with our friends or family and go to services without giving these things our full attention and devotion. A Chasidic legend teaches about Rabbi Zusya of Hanipoli: "Before he died, Rabbi Zusya said, 'In the world-to-come they will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?'" We do not have to be perfect. We do not even have to strive to be great in the ways that others are great. But we have to be our best selves. One purpose of prayer is to remind us of this difficult task and to inspire us to achieve it
Others have interpreted the requirement that the animal be without blemish as reflecting something about the intention of the supplicant. If God's love for us and our devotion to God are complete and without flaws, so should the animal be. This interpretation raises an interesting question-now that we offer prayers rather than animal sacrifices, should we apply the requirement stipulated here to our prayer? When we offer the sincere words of our hearts, must we be without blemish?
Benno Jacob, a German-Jewish scholar (1862-1945), commented that every detail of sacrifice was designed to remind a man of God (Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, 30). It must have been hard to find such an animal, and this search would only serve to remind that true perfection exists only in the divine realm. On the other hand, while most of creation contains some blemish, there are those rare creations that at least appear to be without, that is, perfect in some sense. In this interpretation, the selecting of an animal for sacrifice may have had something in common with the self-accounting we must do in order to prepare for prayer. In both cases, we reflect on the qualities of God, the ultimate values towards which we strive, and take a close look for any blemishes. God did not need the sacrifices for nourishment. The sacrifices were meant to transform the worshiper, in much the same way that prayer is designed to change us rather than God.
1. Do you agree that we are blessed ourselves when we put forth our best effort? In what ways is trying your best its own reward? What kinds of other rewards are most meaningful and why?
2. Identify an area in which recently you have not been your best or have simply not been fully present. How could you do better?
3. How do you understand our text's unblemished animal? What does this selection teach you about prayer?
For Further Learning
In Pirkei Avot 1:2 we read:
Simon the Righteous was one of the last of the Great Assembly. His motto was: "The world stands on three things-the Torah, the [Temple] service, and loving acts of kindness."
How can you improve in each of these three pillars of Jewish practice: study, worship, and g'milut chasadim? Try setting some goals as a family and support one another in achieving them.
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