August 15, 2022 |

It's No Sacrifice

One of the amazing things about being part of a Jewish community is that - most of the time -- it motivates us to be our best. All of us -- individually -- want to be good people and Jews. But our individual efforts are not enough. We need others to motivate us and challenge us, to hold us to a higher standard. One of the important things to look for in a spouse is someone who challenges us (lovingly) to be our best person. We also look to our neighbors, friends and community members to create a culture that helps us to excel. If we seek to be active in Torah learning, doing chessed (acts of kindness) and supporting Israel, we would be wise to seek out a community that desires the same. We can help build it and it will help build us. Lastly, of course, we turn to the presence of Hashem (God) in our midst - ever-watchful, never-sleeping - to motivate us.

In the desert, each Israelite had their own tent (their Jewish home), the places where they gathered together as a community (the synagogue) and the mikdash, the Temple, in which God's presence dwelt in the community. We live in a time of weakness in these areas. Many many Jewish parents today lack the skill, the creativity and/or the knowledge to adequately pass on the values and practices of Judaism to their children. Many of our synagogues are places of dwindling membership and even less enthusiasm. And the Temple, well, we don't even have any replica to take its place.

There was something amazing - and scary at the same time -- about the idea of God having His own house on your block. Even if Hashem is everywhere and we can call upon Him/Her at any time of celebration or distress, still - when we had a Temple, His/Her address was in our zip code! This is the situation that the Jews find themselves in for the first time as the curtain goes up on the book of Vayikra, a God who lives there, Who calls to Moshe from within the house created for His name.

What the book of Vayikra is trying to say - for the next 27 chapters -- is that having God as your neighbor requires a certain approach to life, requires us to seek holiness and purity, to be our best. If we mess up the neighborhood, God will engage in His own little act of urban flight and our property values (spiritual values?) will plummet. The book of Vayikra, as a book, is trying to answer the question of how you relate to God when God lives in your community. As challenging a mandate as it was to those who were fortunate enough to face it, it is perhaps even more so for us, who can only dream of living in such a spiritually enlightened context.

As foreign and bizarre as they seem, the animal sacrifices (which make up the majority of the first 10 chapters of the book) are the first attempt to sketch a response to this question. The so-called sacrifice is called in Hebrew a korban, an act of coming close, or a thing brought close. One who brings a korban to God is him or herself drawing close to God with a gift as if to say "Welcome to the neighborhood, I want to get to know You better" or "Here is a present for you, because you are important to me and I want to have an ongoing relationship with you."

The korbanot (sacrifices) are themselves divided into different categories that reflect our relationship to God. Some sacrifices were communal[1] -- like the daily offering -- and some were individual, because we come close to God sometimes as the owner of our own tent (and family) and sometimes as a member of the Jewish people.

Some sacrifices were voluntary (brought when you feel like it) and some were obligatory. A person may bring a shelamim sacrifice (3:1-17) as an act of thanksgiving or celebration whenever they want, but if one accidentally violated the Sabbath or ate a piece of non-kosher meat, they are obligated to bring a korban chatat, or sin offering. In the first, we proactively seek out a relationship with Hashem, "to reaffirm a relationship" or "to aspire to build and strengthen[2]" one. In the other, we seek to atone for our sins, to heal and fix a broken relationship, to apologize and start over.

Some sacrifices are consumed on the fire as offering to God (representing that we are nothing before Him) and others are mostly eaten by the kohanim or the owners, (representing that we and God are partners.) In our sidra (portion), there are three main types of meat offering that are discussed[3]:
a) The "elevation" offering, called a korban olah
b) The "completion" offering, called korban shelamim
c) The "sin/guilt" offerings, called korban chatat and korban asham

David Hazony suggests that these represent the three 'modes' (or moods) of the Jewish community as it related to God: the modes of worship, celebration and repentance. The elevation offering (1:3-17) is the first mentioned and its flesh is entirely burned on the altar. This is the first response to God's presence - in sacrifice or prayer - when we approach, which is awe. It is as if we say before God that we are nothing, that everything is given to Hashem, that nothing and no one stands before Him. This is the mode of worship, like the words of Avraham our forefather : "Behold I dare to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and detritus.[4]" Or the words of the King David: "To Hashem is the Earth and Her fullness!" (Psalms 24:1)

The completion offering is next and is an offering of joy or thanksgiving. Though it is a sacrifice and part of it is offered before God, much of it is eaten and those who bring it also, so to speak sponsor Kiddush, for those who are invited to the meal. As a community, we celebrate our Judaism and our relationship to Hashem and we revel in the happy times: holidays, times of accomplishment, weddings and births. These are the times of Halleluya.

Finally, the sin offerings, for when we need to take stock and repair. There is a mourning quality to the sin and guilt offerings, a realization of lost potential. Sometimes, the community and its individual members need to recalibrate their actions and values to meet the needs of tomorrow. When our actions have risked all that we value, we have to recognize the consequences and stand before Hashem. Taking responsibility for our mistakes is critical in a relationship that is meant to endure.

Though we don't have sacrifices or God as a neighbor, we do have Jewish homes and we do have each other in our Jewish community. If we cannot offer an olah, a shelamim or a chatat, we can at least study and learn from their lessons and meanings in the Torah (d'rosh, v'kabeil sachar, learn! and receive thereby the reward)and we can at least recall them in our prayers, as it says in Hoshea (14:3): "and let us substitute for bulls from our lips." Shabbat shalom!

[1] Bought with communal funds, like the half-shekel.
[2] Quotes from Rabbi Menachem Leibtag.
[3] There is also the mincha, or grain offering, which we will leave aside for now.
[4] Gen. 128:27: see also Deut. 7:7 "you are the least among nations", Rashi: who make yourselves the least of all nations.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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