Vayikra: A Different “Approach” to “Sacrifice”

This week, Jews all over the world are beginning to study the book of Leviticus, or in Hebrew, ויקרא Vayikra, which means: “And He Called.”  The reference is to G-d calling to Moses to tell him what to say to the Israelites.

Leviticus contains some of the loftiest, most inspiring passages in the entire Hebrew Bible, such as Love your neighbor as yourself, You shall be holy, and Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.   But Vayikra also contains much “gory” material on a subject that most of us would prefer to disregard as distasteful and archaic: animal sacrifices. 

In the first Torah portion of Yayikra, G-d sets forth the types of sacrifices or “offerings,”    קורבנות (korbanot) in Hebrew, required or optional under various circumstances.  These include thanksgiving sacrifices/offerings for health, for good fortune, and so on; sacrifices/offerings for various inadvertent and intentional sins; and those for various individual and community transgressions.     

The whole notion of “sacrifices” or “offerings” to G-d is a difficult one for many of us, especially because it involved killing animals, cutting, burning, and consuming their body parts, sprinkling blood, and so on.  The entire subject strikes many of us as primitive, cruel, and formalistic.  I even once heard an intelligent, thoughtful synagogue (lay) leader, who had been invited to give a D’var Torah that Shabbat, ridicule the entire practice from the bimah! (I wondered not only why he would say such a thing from the pulpit, but why he evidently felt that modern commercial slaughterhouse processing practices are morally superior to our ancient ritual slaughtering of animals, which were then eaten, as expressions of thanksgiving, atonement, etc.) 

In truth, there is much we can learn from the subject of “sacrifices.”  One of the most important modern Jewish thinkers, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived in Germany from 1808-1888, wrote this concerning the issue:

It is truly regrettable that we have no word [in Western languages] that would adequately convey the concept inherent in the Hebrew word קורבן (korban).  Unfortunately, the German term Opfer which, in fact, as seen from its Latin source, offero, simply means “offering,” has come to imply that he who makes the “sacrifice” is giving up something and destroying it to his own detriment.  But this notion is altogether foreign and indeed totally contrary to the character and the connotation of the Hebrew term  קורבן.

Not even the concept inherent in the term “offering” adequately conveys the significance of קורבן.  For the concept of “offering” or “presenting” implies that the one to whom the gift is “presented” has a desire, a wish or a need to be gratified by the gift.  The concept implicit in קורבן has no relevance whatsoever to such notions.  Scripture never employs the term קורבן to denote a “present” or a “gift.”  Indeed, Scripture uses it exclusively with reference to man’s relationship with G-d, and it can be understood only in the connotation implicit in its root (ק-ר-ב), meaning “to approach.” 

Thus, the whole notion conveyed by the English word “sacrifice,” as something valuable that is given up, is misleadingly negative.  The actual Hebrew word refers to approaching the Divine and to soulful, spiritual expression (in a variety of emotions).   It is “sacri-fice” in the sense of a sacred offering, not relinquishing or losing something, as in English.

I believe that the interest of the entire book of Vayikra, with all of its laws and rules for behavior, is promoting holiness and facilitating our approach to G-d.  I’ll go even further and say that the purpose of the entire Torah, the purpose of being Jewish, the purpose of living as a Jew, the very nature of human existence, is to approach G-d. 

Why do we need religious rituals and laws to do this?  Can’t we just “be good people?”   In 2008, David P. Barash, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington, wrote a three-column editorial published in the L.A. Times under the title “Want a man, or a worm?”  The subtitle was: “The science is in: Eliot Spitzer was just doing what comes naturally.”  Barash devoted most of his column to arguing that men have very strong natural biological urges to mate with many women.  Then he concluded by commenting that “doing what comes naturally” is what non-human animals do.  “People,” he said, “… have the unique capacity to act contrary to their biologically given inclinations.  Maybe, in fact, it is what makes us human.”   

Perhaps unintentionally, Barash was paraphrasing the Torah, which states, “Sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you; yet you can be its master.”[1] 

All of the laws in this week’s Torah portion, and in the book of Vaykira, and in the Torah, and in all of Jewish law, are intended to do one of two things.  Either to elevate our conduct above “what comes naturally” or to prompt us to think about higher spiritual/moral purposes when we do “what comes naturally.”

For well over 1,000 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple, we Jews used sacrifices to facilitate our approach to G-d with our hopes, prayers, sorrows, and regrets.  For the past 2,000 years, prayer has been our substitute method.  But how many of us sincerely and regularly pray?  Could it be that animal sacrifices, as gory as they were, gave our people access to a sense of the Divine that many modern Jews have yet to experience?  

May our study of the practices regrettably translated in English as “sacrifices,” and our adherence to Judaism, its laws, its rituals, and its ethics, further our desire and ability to approach the Divine in each other and within ourselves.

[1] Genesis 4:7.  Jewish Publication Society translation. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb