As the Book of Exodus concludes with the completion of the Tabernacle, logic dictates that the laws applicable in that holy site be delineated. Vayikra, the third book of Torah, thrusts us into the now-extinct world of animal and vegetable sacrifices, which includes the dashing of blood against the sides of the altar and the sweet smell of acceptable sacrifices ascending to God. How many vegetarian b'nei mitzvah students or their parents have struggled to find meaning in the animals consumed by fire on the altar? What can we derive from a cultic system that has been abandoned for nearly two millennia?
The opening chapters of this week's parashah, Vayikra (God's "Calling" to Moses), describe voluntary korbanot, "burnt offerings." The overwhelming majority of the community had the opportunity to participate in the sacrificial system, no matter what their financial well-being was. The meal or pigeon offering of a poor person was equal to the sacrifice of a wealthy person's unblemished bull. Although the ancient sacrificial system, avodah, has been replaced by worship, the Jewish community has never relinquished the notion of voluntary contributions. So, too, our own commitment to God, as well as our status in the community, should not be dictated by financial well-being. The individual who sacrifices time and energy on behalf of the synagogue deserves similar z'chut, "merit," as those whose financial contributions help provide an "awesome" synagogue structure and spiritual programming. An intrinsic link between the ancient sacrificial system and our contributions of time and money must be rooted in the notion of "freewill" giving. Throughout Vayikra, the word v'im, "and if," introduces the numerous categories of sacrifice. "If" suggests that free will is implicit in some sacrifices. The Maharal reasons that even when one makes an obligatory sacrifice, (for example, annual temple dues), there should be a voluntary element attached to it.
While congregations today practice a contributory system similar to the ancient Israelites' voluntary korbanot, they also have transcended an integral component of that historic period. Present-day rabbis bear little resemblance to their priestly forebears. Emerging from the Pharisaic tradition, the authority of rabbis (and cantors) today is not rooted in a hereditary bloodline. More striking is the function of rabbis and cantors in the modern Jewish community. Not once in the Torah do we encounter a priest engaging in conversation with an ordinary Israelite. Not once does the priest extend a hand in compassion or comfort. Not once do we experience the priest's as a prophetic voice. For the ancient Israelite community, the priest was a functionary serving as a conduit between the people and God. The community depended upon the priest to make expiation on their behalf but did not expect him to serve as their spiritual leader or moral ethical guide. Although each individual could participate in the sacrificial system, she or he could not partner with the priest in charting a course for that community's destiny. Like a diligent pharmacist, the priest filled God's prescription for acceptable sacrifices and communal purity.
Sefer Vayikra reaches its crescendo in parashat K'doshim, which contains the Holiness Code. Whether through korbanot or voluntary contributions of their financial resources or time and whether they were priestly functionaries or engaging spiritual leaders, Jews spanning the millennia have striven toward the same sacred goal: Our people's devotion to the desert Tabernacle or modern synagogues creates a pathway through which we can, in accordance with God's holiness implanted within us, be called to draw nearer to our God.
Rabbi Deborah Hirsch is senior rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, NY.