What are we really offering?

By Rabbi Andrew M. Paley
Parashat Vayikra

As the Book of Exodus has come to a close with its description of the building of the Mishkan, the desert Temple, Leviticus begins with the description of what is to go on in that Temple, namely, the various animal and harvest sacrifices the people were obligated to offer. The Torah provides vivid and rather pedantic detail of how the sacrifices were to be made, including where blood was to be spattered and which parts of the animals were to be burned. With each turn of the biblical page in this week’s parashah, Vayikra, we are bound to ask, as we have been asking since animal sacrificing stopped being the modality of our engagement with God, what relevance does any of this have anymore?

The great commentator Pinchas Peli noted that we shouldn’t even bother trying to figure out this sacrificing information until such time that sacrificing is reinstituted, which will provide new insights into old rituals.

There is no question that sacrifice continues to be one the most puzzling aspects of Biblical Judaism. How can we ever expect to derive any sort of spiritual elevation or draw closer to God through the slaughter of animals and the burning of their carcasses? Have we Jews not advanced past such primitive practices?

However, the Hebrew term for sacrifice, korban, derived from the root k-r-v meaning “to draw near” suggests that the purpose of sacrificial worship was exactly to help the Israelites connect with God; thus sacrifices remain on the books as key mitzvot, the obligations that Jews undertake as part of their covenantal relationship with God. The question becomes, therefore, what meaning can we, as modem Jews, draw from the teachings about sacrifice? What spiritual lessons can we derive, beyond the simple literal meaning of the text?

Ultimately, sacrifice is about leading a life of holiness. It is about actively working on our relationship with God and giving of ourselves, of the best that we have, that which is pure and without blemish, to the Holy One. It really doesn’t take much effort to bring an animal or a handful of grain to the altar — you just pick it up and hand it to the Levite. It takes much more effort to bring our true selves. Real self-awareness and humility can be difficult and painful sometimes, but they are necessary if we truly want to “draw near” to that which is holy. Arrogance and defensiveness may shelter us from some of that pain, but they stand in the way of serious personal and spiritual development. They are the sacrifices that are required of us today and by offering them up, we can draw nearer to God.

Rabbi Andrew M. Paley is senior rabbi at Temple Shalom.

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