Vayikra (March 12, 2011)
(1) The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: (2) Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the LORD, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock. (3) If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall make his offering a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in his behalf before the LORD. (4) He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in his behalf, in expiation for him.
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
To us, the whole sacrificial enterprise suggests a hidebound, primitive religious worldview that envisions an anthropomorphic, hungry god that must be fed a menu of goats, sheep and oxen before he can dole out blessings and punishments to mankind. For many of us the exhortations of the prophets about sacrifices resonate with meaning and correspond to our view of how religious values function. Amos, speaking in the name of God, says, “For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; obedience to God rather than burnt offerings.” [Amos 6:6] Micah urges a hierarchy of values where sacrifice is subordinate to justice and goodness: “With what shall I approach the Lord, do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?…He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.” [Micah 6:6,8]
In the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the offering of sacrifices came to an abrupt end. Notwithstanding the panoply of directives and prescriptions for sacrifices in the extended priestly legal codes of Leviticus — more than half of the 613 commandments in the Bible pertain to sacrificial activities — this form of expression of divine worship had perforce to be discontinued. In its place the Rabbis instituted a theology of ethics and morals. Taking his cue from Hosea, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai is said to have responded to a colleague who was distressed about the ruins of the Temple and the absence of a means of achieving atonement by enunciating an alternative: “He said to him: ‘My son, do not be distraught. We have atonement that is similar to this. And what is it? It is acts of loving kindness, as it says, “For I desire loving kindness not sacrifice.’” (Hosea 6:6) [Avot D’Rabbi Natan, Version A, Chapter 4]
Despite the shift from sacrifice to prayer, the Rabbis continued their effort to find meaning in the sacrifice paradigm. For Rabbi Phineas, who spoke in the name of Rabbi Levi, sacrifices were not an end in themselves but rather a means whereby God could wean the Israelites from their idolatrous habits:
The precept may be understood by the parable of the king’s son who thought he could do what he liked, and so fell into eating animals improperly slaughtered or torn by wild beasts. The king said: “I shall have him always at my table, and, thus learning to restrain himself, he will be weaned from improper conduct.”…Then, too, Israel used to bring their offerings in private high places, which were forbidden, and on account of which punishments came upon them. So the Holy One said, “Let them bring their offerings to me at all times in the Tent of Meeting, and thus be weaned from idolatry and saved from punishments.” [Midrash Rabbah Leviticus 22:8]
Maimonides, the inveterate rationalist expositor of Jewish philosophy, echoes this evolutionary conception of sacrifice’s role as a stage in the formation of Judaism. The early Israelites, he contends, lived in an atmosphere where sacrifice was a universal custom, where the relationship between man and God was defined by the offering of animals on an altar. God recognized that the people would not tolerate the complete abandonment of the practice, so he limited it to one place with tightly prescribed procedures, with the ultimate intention of weaning the people from it. [Guide of the Perplexed, Book III, Chapter 32] In Maimonides’s conception, divine worship in Judaism demanded intellectual engagement.
Liberal Judaism, spearheaded by the Reform Movement, also saw sacrifices as a stage in Judaism’s development, asserting that for contemporary Jews the notion is a vestige of a bygone era with no application to modernity.
Another source for understanding the meaning of sacrifice is offered by the Jewish mystical tradition. The Sefer ha’Bahir focuses on the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, a word that first appears in our portion. (The word “sacrifice” is, in fact, derived from Latin and means “to make sacred.”) The root of this word — K-R-V — connotes drawing near, bringing together, uniting. The mystical perspective, with its recognition of the transcendent power of God and its emphasis on man’s ongoing effort to achieve wholeness by uniting with that power, sees sacrifice as an objective correlative describing the longing for the culmination of such a union. The sacrificial act metaphorically joins the lower world to the upper spheres of the divine, bringing together the believer and God. It is an expression of the elusive “unio mystico” at the heart of mankind’s yearning.
Studying the operation of sacrifice we note that a key component occurs at the outset of the procedure. After the offering is chosen, the priest “shall lay his hand upon the head” of the animal. [Leviticus 1:3] And later, the individual who brings the zevach sh’lamim, the sacred gift of greeting, also is instructed to “lay his hand upon the head of his offering.” This s’michah, the laying on of hands, begins a ritual act that culminates in the burning of some portion (or all) of the animal and includes, in most cases, consuming a part of the offering. An integral part of the operation of sacrifice is, then, the human connection to the process.
Viewed from this perspective, the lesson to be drawn from our readings of the sacrificial offerings is the challenge of drawing closer to God in our own lives in our own way.
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