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Parashat Vayikra 5779 — 03/16/2019

Parashat Vayikra 5779 — 03/16/2019

Vayikra 1:1-5:26

Now that we have a Mishkan, what are we going to do with it? Gd answers in the book of Leviticus / Vayikra that we are to bring offerings / korbanot. Now the idea of offerings or sacrifices is a Western idea. We are very attached to our property and burning a perfectly good bull and not eating any of it is a real sacrifice. Nonetheless, the root of the word korban (singular of korbanot) is k-r-v, which means, “close.” The purpose of a korban is not wasteful, conspicuous consumption. The purpose of a korban is to draw close to Gd.

It is clear from the Torah that the idea of korbanot was not introduced with the Mishkan. Cain and Abel both brought korbanot – the fact that Gd accepted Abel’s and did not accept Cain’s led to the first murder in the Torah. Noach brought korbanot after the Flood, in thanksgiving for being saved – the extra “kosher” animals were brought onto the Ark for just this purpose. Avraham was ordered to bring his son as a “wholly consumed offering” / Olah, and offered a divinely provided ram in his stead when Gd stayed his hand from his son. And certainly the “3-day journey” to worship Gd that was originally proposed to Pharaoh involved korbanot, as Moshe and Aharon had to argue with Pharaoh that they needed to take all their livestock with them, not knowing beforehand what would be required. Indeed, the very language in which the korbanot are introduced in our parashah presupposes at least a general prior knowledge of such korbanot.

R. Goldin points out that as the Cain and Abel story demonstrates, the focus is not so much on what is offered, but on the intentions of the one doing the offering. Thus Cain offers “…[some] of his produce…” while Abel offers “… the choicest of the firstborn of his flocks…” (Bereishit 4:3-4). Cain reasoned that Gd doesn’t actually need any of the physical offerings, so it didn’t matter if he offered mediocre stuff. Unfortunately, Gd recognized that Cain’s bringing mediocre stuff was a reflection of mediocre thinking, and therefore Gd did not accept Cain’s offering. Abel took the opposite tack, offering the best he had to offer. His reasoning was that his offering was really a stand-in for himself, and he’d best put his best foot forward. In both Cain and Abel’s cases, there was a desire to grow closer to Gd by approaching Him with the fruits of our actions. Gd did not ask for these offerings; they came spontaneously from human beings.

With the Exodus, specifically with the first Pesach offering, we enter the era of offerings commanded by Gd. While some of the Temple offerings could be free-will offerings, many were commanded to atone for sin or to celebrate holidays. In the case of offerings brought for atonement, the purpose is to repair the relationship with Gd; in the free-will offerings and holiday offerings, an opportunity is given to strengthen and deepen that relationship.

But why animal (and grain) offerings? R. Goldin reviews various answers given by our Rabbis through the ages:

Rambam (Maimonides) opines that the korbanot were an accommodation to the newly freed Israelites’ inability to connect with a Gd Who is invisible and, to non-prophets, silent. Gd allows them to continue their familiar form of worship, only directs it away from idolatry and towards Gd. There is another place in Torah where a law is a concession to human weakness: if a soldier sees among the captured population a beautiful woman, he is allowed to take her, under certain circumstances. The difference is that men’s lusting for beautiful women is nothing new and not something that is likely to go away any time soon, while Rambam envisions the korbanot as a temporary fix for the nation. But why would the eternal Torah have a temporary fix, and spend 5 parshiyot on it?

Ramban takes vociferous issue with Rambam. He gives a rational explanation for the way the korbanot work to expiate sin, by bringing the awareness of the sinner to the gravity of what he has done and to the fact that but for the grace of Gd, he would be slaughtered instead of the animal! Ramban also gives (and prefers) a Kabbalistic explanation, which R. Goldin does not quote and my language skills are insufficient to translate. The Sefer haChinuch, who may have been a student of Ramban’s, “… remains true to his general postulate that a person’s thoughts and sentiments are shaped, in great measure, by his concrete actions.” Thus, the sacrificial ritual attunes, or perhaps better, reconnects, one’s “thoughts and sentiments” with Gd’s Will.

R. Goldin himself points out that, except for the Olah, which is wholly burned on the Altar, virtually all of the korbanot have parts which are eaten by human beings – either the kohanim, or the kohanim and their families, or the person who is bringing the offering and his family and friends: “In contrast to classical ‘sacrifices,’ consumed entirely on the altar, korbanot were, in large measure, shared meals with Gd. Faced with the naturally developing distance between man and his Creator, forced to address the separation from Gd that results from sin, the Torah proposes a path, astoundingly profound in its simplicity: invite Gd to your table.” Of course, we can still invite Gd to our table; every blessing we say over our food, acknowledging Gd’s bounty, every poor person we feed, every word of Torah we speak, are all manifestations of our sharing our meal with Gd.

I would like to add one more suggestion to the mix. We have discussed in the past that our esoteric tradition tells us that the sounds of the Hebrew language correspond directly to the vibratory qualities of their referents. The laws of Hebrew grammar and its syntax are representations in human speech of the subtlest vibrations that make up the fundamental levels of creation, upon which the rest of creation is structured. I have suggested that hearing these sequences of sounds – i.e. praying and listening to Torah readings – may structure the functioning of the brain and nervous system in a kind of resonance phenomenon. With repetition, the brain becomes used to functioning in accord with these subtle laws of nature; our will becomes attuned to the Will of the One who created these patterns to begin with. I would suggest here that participation in the Temple ritual has the same harmonizing, resonant function as the Hebrew language. In other words, the layout of the Mishkan, the clothing of the kohanim, the rituals involving the animals and the grain, the chanting of the Levites – all go to one purpose, to attune our consciousness with Gd’s plan for the world. The result of this on the surface is that the rains come on time and there is material abundance, and in the depths of our souls, Gd comes to dwell within/among us and the relationship becomes ever closer.

Sadly, because we have lost the knowledge of the way to make proper use of Torah and Temple for our maximum growth, we no longer have the Temple rituals – they had become empty, rote performances and were relatively useless for individual or communal growth. But Gd tells us that we can replace sacrificial with [the words of prayer on] our lips (Hoshea 14:3). We may not have the full gamut of ways to raise ourselves up to come close to Gd, but we still have plenty; we just have to make full use of it!

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayikra

“Vayikra” means “and He Called.”  Gd called to Moses to describe to him Five Offerings that would allow our ancestors – and us – to draw near to Gd – “Offerings” in Hebrew is “korbanot” which means “draw near.”

The Five Offerings (Korbanot):

  • Fire: to atone.
  • Meal: a gift from one whose life is dedicated to generosity.
  • Peace: made when making peace with others by dedicating one’s life to Gd.
  • Trespass: to compensate for unintentional infringement on others’ rights.
  • Sin: paid in full the debt of one’s unintentional failures and weaknesses, failures of one’s personality.

What we really offered when we offered the physical offerings in the days of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and of the First and Second Temple was ourselves: we offered the limits of ourselves to Gd to dissolve them in the Fire of Love so as to restore us to Wholeness, Oneness, Fulfillment.

This is what we do today when we use prayers instead of physical offerings: we offer our limits to Gd to Dissolve them in the Fire of Love and to Restore us to Wholeness, Oneness, Fulfillment.

And this is what we do today, whether formally praying or in the midst of the rest of the activities of our life: Through our right actions in any way, we draw near: we draw near with our innocence, our naturalness, our kindness, our gratitude. We draw near with our simple, easy life that seeks to be in attunement with Gd and Gd’s Will, seeks to easily (but quickly!) return to Primordial Oneness, beyond the duality of Gd and soul, within which all multiplicity exists as expressions within Oneness.

Ahhh! Little by little: and suddenly! Home free! Home!

Baruch HaShem.