The Book of Leviticus is not a favorite among biblical readers. If it’s any indication, Hollywood hasn’t recreated any scenes from Leviticus, like it has from Genesis and Exodus. But for all its talk about sacrifices and bodily effects, Leviticus has a lot to tell us if we lift the ancient rituals out of their ancient settings and dust them off for relevant lessons.
To begin, in Near Eastern cultures of the time, sacrifices on altars were brought to feed gods that were represented by statues of deities. People brought them animals, grains, and oils, among other gifts. In contrast, we learn in Torah that animal and grain sacrifices were brought by Israelites to create a link between the One God, God’s people, and the world. The priests facilitated the process, for which they were compensated; but, it was the presentation of the sacrifices by the Israelites themselves to the priests that was the most precious gift because their personal sacrifices drew them closer to God. The Hebrew root of the word, korban, means “to draw near” or “to draw close.” Unlike the English translation, “sacrifice,” which suggests losing something in the act of offering, a korban enabled the Israelites to draw nearer to God’s justice and mercy.
In ancient times, Israelites were commanded to bring the best of their flocks and herds “without blemish” for animal sacrifice (Leviticus 3:1ff). Their offerings, specifically prescribed, represented thanksgiving, forgiveness, atonement from sin, freewill offerings, and so on. Perfect atonement, for example, was granted with a perfect offering; but, the complex expectations unraveled when errant Israelites failed to keep God’s commandments and priests failed to perform their duties.
In the Book of Malachi (fifth century BCE) God admonished the Israelites:
“Where is the reverence due Me? — said the Lord of Hosts to you, O priests who scorn My name. But you ask, ‘How have we defiled You?’ By saying, ‘The table of the Lord can be treated with scorn.’ When you present a blind animal for sacrifice — it doesn’t matter! When you present a lame or sick one — it doesn’t matter!” (Malachi 1:6ff)
But, it did matter very much. God made clear to the Israelites:
“I will be tender toward them as a man is tender to a son who ministers to him. And you shall come to see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between him who has served the Lord and him who has not served Him.” (Malachi 3:17-18).-
It was an early warning for the priests and the sacrificial cult. Ultimately, the Temple in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of the Israelite sacrificial cult, was destroyed by Roman legions in 70 CE, and the role of prayer in synagogues, which was already unfolding, took hold.
But perhaps more than the sacrificial cult remains lost forever. Consider that in each person’s choice of animals for sacrifice was an intimate concern to bring something perfect and pleasing to God; it was borne in the physicality of carrying their animal to the High Priest for sacrifice. It wasn’t necessarily more meaningful than bringing one’s prayer directly to God, as we do. But it concerns me that the duty to pray is not felt as heavily in our hearts as it once did in their hands. Prayers lack physicality. We’ve traded the burden of our hands for the duty of the heart that now conveys prayer within and beyond us. Supposedly, we’re more advanced; therefore, we’re supposed to make our prayer before God more intellectual (personally chosen with understanding), but also more spiritual (offered with intentionality and purpose). At best, a worshiper offers prayers with similar intimate concerns to come close to God with an “offering” that is perfect and pleasing to God.
To enrich our prayer experiences and ensure their outcomes, our Rabbis built layer upon layer of nuance into the meaning of our prayers. The personal expectations that Moses experienced with God aren’t unlike our own expectations when we approach God with our prayers. In a midrash, we are taught:
R. Nehemiah expounded the verse (Psalm 18:26ff) as referring to Moses. When he approached God with special courtesy, God treated him with special courtesy; when he came to God with frankness, God answered him with frankness; when he approached God with lack of directness, God countered him with lack of directness; when he sought a clear statement regarding his affairs, God made clear his affairs for him. (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 11.5)
In the midrash, Moses showed “special courtesy” to God when he said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” Then, God decided to show Moses all God’s glory (see Exodus 33:18-19). Moses showed “frankness” when he said, “Why doesn’t the bush burn up?” (Exodus 3:3) and God answered, “the place on which you stand is holy ground.” Moses showed “lack of directness” when he said: “When I come to the Israelites ... and they ask me, ‘What is His [God’s] name?’ what shall I say to them?’ ” God said to tell them, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh [I am that I Am]” (see Exodus 3:13-14). When Moses sought a “clear statement regarding his affairs,” God said, “I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring My people out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10, see also 4:13, 5:23, 6:1).
God doesn’t reject our prayer offerings, either. It’s just as we’ve been taught to say, “Praised are You, Eternal our God, Who hears prayer, shomei-a t’filah” (T’filat Haderech; Psalm 65:3). One remnant of ancient sacrificial practices, perhaps, is the importance of our intentions when we enter into prayer. Like the Israelite who brought an offering without blemish, we should strive to bring our prayers without blemish, too. Shabbat, in particular, is our day for worship to thank God through rest and prayer. Prayer in our house of worship, Sabbath rituals at home, and bodily and emotional rest are ways to bring our best to God. Today, in song, poetry, or prose, there is nothing more perfect than bringing what we bear in our hearts to share before God, alone.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.