Why Sacrifice?

Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1−5:26

D'Var Torah By: S. David Sperling

Parashat Vayikra opens the Book of Leviticus, arguably the book of the Torah strangest to modern readers. Vayikra devotes five entire chapters to the sacrificial slaughter of animals. Especially strange is the notion expressed in chapters four and five that specific sins require the sacrifice of specific animals. What sense is there in the idea that if I sin, I should kill a goat or have a priest do it for me? Yet within the structure of the Torah, our parashah opens the third book and thus occupies the central literary position. And the importance of sacrifice is not limited to the Torah. Isaiah and Jeremiah, two great prophets of Israel, uttered scathing condemnations of sacrifice when it failed to result in repentance. In opposition to the priesthood, the great prophets taught that sacrifice without repentance was hypocritical, but they did not call for the abolition of the sacrificial system. Even the Mishnah, the foundation document of rabbinic Judaism, avers that the world is sustained by three things. The first is Torah, but the second, avodah, which we translate in our prayer book as "worship," literally refers to the rituals of sacrifice.

Given the historical significance of animal sacrifice in Judaism, it is important for Reform Jews to understand its origins and its symbolism. It is very clear from Vayikra that our ancestors did not originate the sacrificial system. The wording of the laws of sacrifice - "if the offering is an olah, if the offering is a minchah, if the offering is a shehlamim" - shows us that the writers of the Torah took for granted that their audience was already familiar with the sacrificial system. We now have evidence from the ancient Near East that some of the biblical terminology of sacrifice had been in use centuries before the Bible. In fact, anthropologists have demonstrated that sacrificial ritual was practiced during the Paleolithic Age, more than a half-million years ago.

The contribution of the Torah's writers was to incorporate the ancient practices within the Israelite system of values. In our parashah (Lev. 3), the Torah requires that the animal's blood and fat be dashed on the altar. The same chapter prohibits human beings from consuming blood or fat. The reason for these laws is that blood and fat were believed by our ancestors to be our most vital substances. According to Hebrew thinking, it was in the blood and fat that the life force was contained. As such, blood and fat belonged only to God. By prohibiting the consumption of blood and fat to human beings and by demanding that the blood and fat be dashed on the altar, the writers of the Torah imbued the ancient practices of sacrifice with new meaning: Only God has control over the force of life.

For further reading:The JPS Torah Commentary Leviticus, Baruch Levine, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989).

Dr. S. David Sperling, is a professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

Hear the Call

Daver Acher By: Sharon L. Wechter

Vayikra el Moshe vayedaber Adonai elav, "God called to Moses and spoke to him . . . . " (Lev. 1:1) Why does God call Moses before speaking to him?

According to Rashi, all oral communications from God to Moses, whether they are introduced by the words daber, amar, or tzav, "speak, say, command," were preceded by a call to prepare him for the forthcoming message. Why would Moses need such preparation?

Rabbi Abraham Twersky answers by focusing on the internal changes that Moses faced in order to meet each of God's new tasks and challenges. He draws a correlation to the lobster-growing until it becomes too tight, it goes down to the bottom of the ocean and discards its shell to grow a new, larger one. So, too, Moses needed to journey deep within and discard old, dysfunctional behavior to be able to grow and stretch to meet the new orders. Internal change does not come easily to us human beings; even Moses required preparation to focus his attention.

Midrash Hagadol also addresses the parashah's opening words: "The summoning precedes the speaking. Here the Torah teaches us derech eretz [i.e., courtesy, good manners]. One should not speak to another person unless that person has been called." When we are called by another-face it, even our children must call us in order to grab our attention-what type of response do we bring to the calling? ("Mommy?" "Yes? What is it?" "Mommy, will you help me?") To bring focused attention to those who call in need requires us to bring ourselves into relationship with others. And relationships require us to retract attention from ourselves to make room for the other/Other.

Will we listen and attend to those who call us so that what we give and offer can be from our innermost selves, not merely rote actions and behaviors? Will we truly hear and then respond through two-way dialogue, allowing the arrows of connection to fly in both directions? Will we be listening for God's voice, ready to stretch ourselves to meet God and bring the Holy One into the world through our minds, hearts, souls, and actions?

For further reading: Living Each Week, Abraham J. Twersky (New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1992).

Sharon L. Wechter, RJE, is the trade acquisitions editor for the UAHC Press, and associate chaplain at Williams College.

Reference Materials

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

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