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The Call of Parashat Vayikra

  • The Call of Parashat Vayikra

    Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1−5:26
D'var Torah By: 

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 Although the ancient sacrificial system, avodah, has been replaced by worship, the Jewish community has never relinquished the notion of voluntary contributions.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.

What Kind of Sacrifice Are You Willing to Make?
Davar Acher By: 
Debbie Joseph

There's nothing like these April to May b'nei mitzvot with their Levitical Torah portions. Unless a young person is lucky enough to land K'doshim, there is hardly any alternative but to talk about sacrifice.

Now, granted there are many people in the world who are better at communicating with twelve-and-a-half-year-olds than I am. But my efforts to explain the concept of sacrifice almost always elicit an answer like, "Yes, I understand. I am sacrificing time with my friends [or playing soccer, or running track, or . . .] to come here to study so that I can become a bar/bat mitzvah." Either that or "I sacrifice time with friends and time just hanging out so that I can focus more on my swimming [or tennis or flute lessons]." It is hard to pinpoint exactly why those sentiments are wrong, although it is pretty clear to me that they miss the essential point.

Nor does it help very much for me to explain that the Hebrew korban does not really mean "sacrifice" but rather "drawing near (to God)." Most b'nei mitzvah students, I would say, feel much closer to God when they are hanging out with their friends or are under God's blue sky playing soccer than when they are stuck with me in my office for a bar/bat mitzvah lesson. If the truth be told, I, too, feel closer to God when I am in the middle of a thirty-mile bicycle ride than when I am sacrificing time to be in my office with b'nei mitzvah students!

So I guess that the problem, or at least part of it, is that neither I nor my students understand what the Torah really means by korban. What could it have meant to our ancestors to have led an unblemished calf to the altar to be slaughtered and burned? The smoke may have produced "a pleasing odor unto God," but the overwhelming stench of the Temple precinct could not have been very pleasing to anybody else. At least my students and I are in good company here. Quoted in Torat Hayim just three years ago, Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz admitted that the laws of Vayikra are "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).

So how do we convey even the basic mystery of the concept of sacrifice? That mission begins with a search to find not the pious but the true answers to the following questions:

  1. What have we done in our own lives that we consider to have been sacrifices?
  2. In what sense have those actions been sacrifices? Did we give up a pleasurable activity in favor of a more "worthwhile" one? Did we sacrifice in some other way?
  3. What kind of things do we do to foster a sense of closeness to God?

Debbie Joseph's husband, Rabbi Michael Joseph, helped author this article. He is the senior rabbi of Ohef Sholom Temple, Norfolk, VA.

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