Parashat Vayikra

Sacrifices Are Alive And Well!

The model of sacrifices, of offering our kindness, generosity and compassion even if it is difficult, inspires us to continue to draw close to God.

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Provided by the Union of Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Parashah Overview

God instructs Moses on the five different kinds of sacrifices that were to be offered in the sanctuary:

  • The olah or "burnt offering" was a voluntary sacrifice that had a high degree of sanctity and was regarded as the "standard" offering. The entire animal, except for its hide, was burned on the altar. (Leviticus 1:1-17)

  • The minchah or "meal offering" was a sacrifice made of flour, oil, salt, and frankincense that was partly burned on the altar and partly given to the priests to eat. (Leviticus 2:1-16)

  • The zevach sh'lamim or "sacrifice of well-being" was a voluntary animal offering from one's herd, sometimes brought to fulfill a vow. (Leviticus 3:1-17)

  • The chatat or "sin offering" was an obligatory sacrifice that was offered to expiate unintentional sins. This offering differs from the others in the special treatment of the blood of the animal. (Leviticus 4:1-5:13)

  • The asham or "penalty offering" was an obligatory sacrifice of a ram that was required chiefly of one who had misappropriated property. (Leviticus 5:1-26)

Focal Point

If his offering to Adonai is a burnt offering of birds, he shall choose his offering from turtledoves or pigeons. The priest shall bring it to the altar, pinch off its head, and turn it into smoke on the altar; and its blood shall be drained out against the side of the altar. He shall remove its crop with its contents and cast it into the place of the ashes, at the east side of the altar. The priest shall tear it open by its wings, without severing it, and turn it into smoke on the altar, upon the wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to Adonai. (Leviticus 1:14-17)

Your Guide

What purpose did the sacrifices serve for our forefathers?

What did ancient sacrifices look like? (To answer this question, read most of the parashah.)

Today we do not have an altar for sacrifices and we no longer sacrifice living animals. What are our present-day sacrifices?

Do you think that sacrifices should be difficult to offer?

By the Way…

The term "sacrifice" comes from a Latin word meaning "to make something holy." The most common Hebrew equivalent is korban, "something brought near," i.e., to the altar. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC Press, 1981, p. 750)

God introduces a subject that is most fundamental and most esoteric at the same time: the korbanot, "offerings" or "sacrifices," by which we are brought near to God…. The Sages of talmudic times began to modernize the korbanot for us. The sacrificial service, they said, should be replaced in the post-Temple era by three things: tzedakah, our table, and prayer. (Tamar Frankiel, Learn Torah With…, Alef Design Group, 1999, p. 202)

On one occasion when [Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his disciple Rabbi Yehoshua] were leaving Jerusalem, the latter gazed upon the destroyed Temple and cried out, "Woe to us! The place where Israel obtained atonement for sins is in ruins!" Rabbi Yochanan said to him, "My son, be not distressed. We still have an atonement equally efficacious, and that is the practice of benevolence." (Avot d'Rabbi Natan 4)

Ben Azzai said: Run to fulfill a slight mitzvah as if it were a weighty one, and flee from transgression: For one mitzvah draws another mitzvah, and one transgression draws another transgression, because the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the reward of a transgression is a transgression. (Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Forebears) 4:2)

Let a person do good deeds, study Torah, and bring an offering. Then God will have mercy and extend repentance. (Eliyahu Rabbah, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, UAHC Press, 1990, p. 100)

Nehama Leibowitz explains that the sacrifices are a "positive means of promoting communion with the Divine" and "a symbol and expression of a person's desire to purify himself and become reconciled with God." (cited by B. S. Jacobson in Meditations on the Torah, Sinai Publishing, Tel Aviv, 1956, pp. 137-142)

Prayer is the heart…of significant living… Prayer is a step on which we rise from the self we are to the self we wish to be. Prayer affirms the hope that no reality can crush, the aspiration that can never acknowledge defeat… Prayer seeks the power to do wisely, to act generously, to live helpfully… Prayer is the search for silence amidst noise… Prayer takes us beyond the self… Our prayers are answered…when we are challenged to be what we can be. (Rabbi Morris Adler, cited in A Torah Commentary for Our Times, UAHC Press, 1990, p. 101)

Your Guide

Since we don't have a Temple in which to make sacrifices, what does Rabbi Yochanan say about how we should perform them?

How does Ben Azzai suggest that we move closer to God?

How does Eliyahu Rabbah think that the Jewish people can attain forgiveness? Do you think we can attain forgiveness without making physical sacrifices?

What is Rabbi Morris Adler's description of prayer? How would you describe it? How is prayer like sacrifice?

D'var Torah

Understanding the concept of korbanot gives us concrete ways to live our lives. To the Israelites, the Temple was the place where God resided. Making offerings at the Temple was their way to get closer to God. Certainly the sacrifices were not easy to make. The animals had to be slaughtered in severe and brutal ways. Ripping limbs, pinching off heads, tearing animals open, dashing blood against the altar, and dipping fingers into blood don't sound like pleasant activities.

Although it is not possible to make sacrifices at the Temple today, that doesn't exclude us from having to put forth an effort to bring ourselves closer to God--making our own korbanot. We can draw closer to God if we act in a God-like way. Our practice of benevolence is shown through kindness, compassion, generosity, and goodwill for the earth and its inhabitants.

In the movie Pay It Forward, the boy, Trevor, seeks to have a positive impact on the world by doing unsolicited good deeds for people and asks only that they repay him by doing the same for three others. When one of his recipients says that is not easy, Trevor replies, "It is not supposed to be easy." Trevor is acting in a benevolent way and is encouraging others to behave in the same manner.

The study of Torah and prayer are other means that bring us closer to God. They allow us to act in a God-like way.

In his famous book Guide for the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides argues that sacrifices were an early form of worship given to the Jewish people so that they could learn how to serve God without feeling different from all other peoples surrounding them. Slowly, Maimonides says, the people learned that "the sacrificial service is not the primary objective of the commandments but that prayer is a better means of obtaining nearness to God." Agreeing with the early Rabbis, Maimonides emphasizes that the superiority of prayer is that "it can be offered everywhere and by every person." (A Torah Commentary for Our Times, UAHC Press, 1990, p. 100)

As we conclude our study of Parashat Vayikra, we need to know what our present-day korbanot should consist of. Certainly all forms of tzedakah and the following of mitzvot

(commandments) are essential. Studying Torah and attending prayer services also move us to the closer connection with God that we so desire.

Whether we have sinned or not, whether we have done so intentionally or unintentionally, we still have the desire to move closer to God, to offer our own korbanot. To do so, we must put forth the effort to show kindness, compassion, generosity, and goodwill even if that is not easy. At the same time, we must put forth the effort to study Torah and attend worship services. As Pirkei Avot states, Mitzvah goreret mitzvah: The more good we do, the more good we do. This is really a model for life. Sacrifices are alive and well: They just have to be slightly redefined.

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Deborah Gettes is a consultant for special needs education for the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education of Greater Philadelphia.