The Book of Exodus concludes with Moses setting up the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, so that God might dwell in the midst of the people (Exodus 25:8). The text says that Moses put the pieces together as God had commanded him, but how could Moses - and the people - be sure he had done it correctly? Would they experience God in their midst? And how?
The Book of Exodus does not tell us. But once we open the Book of Leviticus - Vayikra, in Hebrew - and read its first portion - also called Vayikra - our suspense ends.Vayikra el-Moshe vay'dabeir Adonai eilav, "And a call came to Moses, and Adonai spoke to him" (Leviticus 1:1). That the Tabernacle was now a place where God could call to Moses indicates that Moses had indeed put it together correctly.
God instructs Moses what to tell the people. "A person from among you who brings an offering to Adonai, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock" (1:2). But the Hebrew is more nuanced. The word for offering is korban; the word for "you shall bring" the offering is takrivu. The root of both words is kuf-reish-bet, from which the word karov, "near," is constructed. A korban can mean either something that is brought near to God or something that brings the offerer near to God. Now the answer to the people's question is clearer: How can they experience the Presence of God in their midst? By bringing an offering from the herd or the flock.
But questions remain. How would bringing a groaning calf or a skittish goat, visible, physical animals, bring a person close to the invisible, nonphysical Presence of God? Didn't the Israelites get in trouble for trying to come close to God's Presence by building a calf made of gold? Why would the original animal serve any better?
Much of the Book of Leviticus is devoted to answering these questions. God describes the offering as an olah, from the root ayin-lamed-hei, which means "to go up." The calf or goat is to be slaughtered, cut up in sections, and put into the fire, which will cause it "to go up" in smoke into the invisible spaces beyond the people's sight. The olah is the opposite of the Golden Calf-all Aaron could do was transform one kind of material object (jewels) into another; what the korban does is to transform a physical creature into an invisible substance that can cross over from the physical realm into the spiritual.
Another act described in Leviticus chapter 1 (verse 4) furthers this idea: someone bringing a korban is to place his or her hand on the head of the animal. As energy is transferred from the hand of the offerer to the animal, the offerer seems to beseech God, saying, "Please accept this animal, from head to tail, as though it were I myself. You have forbidden human sacrifice, but I would be ready and prepared to offer up myself, to be transformed from the physical realm to the invisible realm, if You would permit me." This point is emphasized by the instruction to offer the blood of the animal and sprinkle it around the altar (1:5). Blood, we know from Genesis 9:4, is life, and there is the sense that in covering the altar with the blood of life, the offerer is symbolically covering it with his own life, as part of the offering that "goes up" to God.
The calf that is offered is a "male without blemish," zachar tamim. Why a male? Often a male animal is a symbol of potency, of power, and since most of the offerers were probably men (though women brought offerings too), the person again symbolizes the offering of his or her own powers to God. But the word for "male" in Hebrew is zachar, which can also mean "presence." Once again, offering a male animal to God symbolizes the offerer's desire to be present before God and to be experienced by God as unblemished, sinless—like Abraham and Jacob.
The portion continues to describe other offerings: an olah of birds (1:14-17), a minchah, "presentation" of unleavened meal, fine flour, oil, and incense, like pancakes baked on a griddle (2:1-16); and a sh'lamim, "whole offering," from the root shalem (sometimes rendered a "peace offering," derived from shalom, because, some of the commentators say, it promoted peace between the offerer and the priests with whom it was shared; 3:1-17)
The parashah concludes (chapters 4 and 5) with a description of the motives of offerers who had become distant from God through sin. When the high priest or community leadership of Israel sins unwittingly, a larger animal is brought, a bull, more costly than the other offerings and hence a greater "sacrifice." But a bull also requires a greater effort by the sinners, who must turn not a small calf, but a massive bull into an invisible spiritual offering that enters the realm of God. Sin, the text suggests, intensifies the physical space we take up, and imposes greater barriers between us and the invisible God.
The portion outlines some of the ways we distance ourselves through sin, intentionally or accidentally, by neglecting to testify about a matter of concern to the community, touching something unclean, uttering and then violating an oath, dealing deceitfully in financial matters, and lying about finding a lost object. For each sin against God there is an appropriate offering, while sins against human beings also must be expiated through offering the victim restitution. The portion ends with the promise that when these measures are undertaken, the person is forgiven, and so comes close once again to God and to humanity. To effect such closeness is one of the purposes of the Tabernacle, and the Voice calling to Moses from its midst has now explained the various ways in which closeness can be achieved. The Mishkan was working.
This year, Parashat Vayikra is read on Shabbat HaChodesh, one of the Shabbatot before Passover that has its own reading, from Exodus 12:1-20. This reading explains why the first month of the year is in the spring—in honor of the spring Festival of Freedom—and describes a rite that preceded, and perhaps informed, the offering of animals in the Tabernacle. Each household is to take a lamb and place its blood on the doorpost, a visible sign, the Rabbis argued, of the Israelites' willingness to proclaim their solidarity with their people and with God in the face of Egyptian oppression. Like the offerer described in Vayikra, the Israelites also were willing to offer up their lives to do the will of God.
We no longer offer a korban, whether lamb or bull, but we do observe Pesach, and there is an offering we still can make that can bring us close to God. This offering is prayer, which, being invisible, also transcends the space between our physical bodies and the nonphysical realm of God. Prayer, freely and intensely offered, brings us into the Presence of God; prayer is the response of a free people to the Eternal call from the Divine.
Rabbi Richard N. Levy recently retired as rabbi of the synagogue and director of spiritual growth at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he continues to teach in the fields of liturgy, spiritual growth and social justice. He is a past director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the campus and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.