As we begin a new book of Torah, we realize that it is time for a commercial break. The events that close the book of Exodus will find their resolution in the book of Numbers. Wedged between these two books is Leviticus – a commercial for the priesthood. For many years – decades, even – our Reform and Progressive forebears paid scant heed to lessons of the sacrificial cult. But we have a new openness to learning from all Torah, so despite our modern aversion to the details of animal sacrifice, we dig in to find meaning from the wisdom of our ancient past.
The book begins with a jarring statement – its first word sticks out – Vayikra (kof –reish-alef – and in many manuscripts the alef is not there). Normally we would see V’yidabaer (daled-bet-reish), “And God spoke…” or V’yomaer (alef-mem-reish), “And God said….” But here the term is “And God called out…” – a far more emphatic and surprising formulation. And so we take notice. What follows are the demands of how a sacrifice is to be chosen and offered. Only the best and most precious of the herd or flock can be offered for the expiation of guilt – what is most difficult to part with is required. The sacrifices are called Korbanot (singular: Korban – kof-reish-nun) but the root of the word means, literally, “to draw near.” It is through the sacrifices that we were to draw nearer to God.
There is a midrash that is linked to this text that tells the story of a poor woman on her way to bring her offering. Some of the younger priests are hanging around and notice her carrying nothing more than a handful of grain. They laugh amongst themselves, “What kind of sacrifice is that?” “Who does she think she is?” “This is offensive to God!” But, one of the priests stops his fellows and remarks, “Look at what she carries! What is in her hand is probably the only food she has for the day, and you mock her? What is in her hand is her nefesh – her very soul!” The sacrifices were the way that our people in the ancient past thought that they could draw most near to God.
The days of animal sacrifice are long gone. Our rabbis replaced the Avodah (work- because it took a lot of work to do the sacrifices) with Avodah sh’b’lev (work of the heart – prayer — by the way, our people used to think that the heart was the seat of the intellect, so they were really talking about work of the brain). In Tanhuma (Vayera 31b) we read, “Prayer is greater than all sacrifices.” And our teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “Prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice – it is sacrifice.” So perhaps our first lesson of this chapter is that we must pay attention to our own prayers with the same demand for detail and scrupulous concern as our ancestors paid to the every aspect of the sacrifices of old.
But there are two more lessons that I would like to share from this portion. In Avot d’Rabbi Natan we learn that in the days immediately after the suspension of the sacrificial cult, in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, the students of Yochanan ben Zakkai grieved that they could no longer offer sacrifices. Yochanan told his students “Do not grieve – we have a means of atonement that is equal to sacrifice: It is doing good deeds, for God teaches us (quoting Hosea 6:6), ‘I desire mercy not sacrifices….’” Yochanan teaches us that our Korbanot – our path to drawing near to God, is through our deeds. Again, we need to pay as much attention to detail in the performance of good deeds as our ancestors did when they offered the best they had.
In this week’s portion we also find a very unusual comment by Rashi – the commentator’s commentator. Rabbi Leon Fink points us to Rashi’s comments on verse 4:22 – Rashi declares: “Fortunate is the generation whose leader brings a sacrifice for a sin that he has committed.” The Torah text states “that when a Nasi (leader) sins…” the word that begins the verse is Asher (alef-shin-reish) – which means, “that which” – but that word never begins a sentence or a verse in the Torah, so Rashi adds a “yud” to the end of the word and transforms “Asher” into “Ashrei” which means “fortunate.” Rashi then makes a surprising statement – a generation whose leader brings a sacrifice for the atonement of sin is a “blessed” generation. He makes this statement because he knows that, historically, leaders rarely admit mistakes – and if one arises who is prepared to admit when a mistake is made, that generation is witness to something truly remarkable.
We live in astounding times – we have become so modern that we are often ready to dismiss the wisdom from the past – but we are called -Vayikra- and we need to sit up and take notice. Our ancestors were willing to give up the most precious things to them – even their very nefashot (souls) to do “what is right and good in the sight of the Eternal” (as the Deuteronomist said). They cared about every aspect and detail of their offerings – are we prepared to pay as much attention to the words of our mouths and the deeds that we do? Are we as willing to admit our mistakes and make expiation for our failings? We are called to bring sacrifices to make atonement – which really means “At-one-ment” – drawing closer to what God wants of us.
Perhaps our ancestors were a lot wiser than we thought and they still have so much to teach us.
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