Parshat Vayikra 2018
Vayikra, the book of slaughter and barbeques. Laws about korbanot, sacrifices, all those poor animals being led to the slaughter, offend our vegetarian or animal rights sensibilities. And we call all of this blood and guts “sacrifices”, as if we were giving up something.
But that’s the modern day understanding of sacrifice. The Hebrew, korban, comes from the root meaning to come close. In other words, the animals brought to the priest were supposed to bring the Israelites closer to God.
That actually happens to be the etymology of the word sacrifice. Sacre – the root of words like sacrament and sacred and saint – means holy. Facere – the verb, means to make. Thus, sacrifice means to make (us) holy.
OK, so sacrifice and korban are the same. How does bringing an animal to the altar make us holier? This is a big question that can lead us in many directions. We’ll explore one or two of them.
According to Maimonides, the sacrifices were originally instituted to allow the Hebrews to serve their God in the accepted way. Heathens brought sacrifices to their idols. That was the accepted form of worship in those days and that’s why we were given the practice. By the time of Maimonides, the Temple, the official priesthood and the sacrifices had been gone for over a millennium and prayers had been substituted. This, in his opinion, was a higher form of korban, a better way of coming closer to God.
But that explanation evades the whole question of how sacrifice gain redemption. Clearly, no explanation can actually rationalize why the poor animals had to die – for us – for a bunch of sinners. After all, they were not the guilty party. But let’s look at the requirements of the sacrifices – those rules underlying the actual slaughter – as they appear in today’s parsha and next week’s too, and there we can see certain positive values and elements.
First we see egalitarianism. Bring cattle, sheep or goats – if you can. But if you can’t afford such large animals, you can bring a dove, a bird or two. And if you can’t even afford that, you can bring a meal offering, a farina cake. In other words, everyone can participate, everyone can receive absolution through the sacrifice.
Wait a minute. How does that work? You sin so you bring an animal and then you can go out and start again? There was more to it than that. You had to sincerely give up whatever bad thing you had done. And the animal had to be without blemish. You couldn’t just take an old cow and say, sorry Elsie, you’ve outlived your usefulness so we’ll sacrifice you. No, it had to be a young and healthy animal. So the second lesson: you were really giving something that you valued.
Third, the various parts of the sacrificial process reflected what the penitent would have had to go through if not for the replacement animal. Blood was sprinkled, the animal’s instead of the person’s, the innards – what were perceived at the time as the fountainhead of evil inclinations – were burned, as were the legs, which represented the arms and legs that had helped the person to transgress. And so on.
Fourth, we learn that everyone can sin, from the lowest to the highest, and indeed, it is people at the higher levels who have more opportunities, more temptations, more to win or lose by violating commandments. And all of them are expected to pay up.
The prophets tell us, as we also saw from right after the exodus, that over time, the people tend to became lackadaisical. The practices involved in the sacrifice reflected the degradation of relations between the people and God. For example, Malachi had this complaint:
“Where is the reverence due Me? — said the Lord of Hosts to you, O priests who scorn My name. But you ask, ‘How have we defiled You?’ By saying, ‘The table of the Lord can be treated with scorn.’ When you present a blind animal for sacrifice — it doesn’t matter! When you present a lame or sick one — it doesn’t matter!”
But of course it matters, a lot, and payback time will come, the prophet warns.
“You shall come to see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between him who has served the Lord and him who has not served Him.”
The prophets tried to straighten out the people, but these illicit practices continued until the Second Temple was eventually destroyed.
Today we have prayers instead of sacrifices and sometimes we can see a lessening of attention and intention. For some, the familiar words are like a balm, we say them and we feel we have fulfilled an obligation that makes us feel better, like brushing our teeth. For others, the prayers sound devotional even though we don’t understand the words. And the English translation, when we read it, may be in archaic English that also creates an aura but not understanding. (The newer translations offer understanding but not the aura.) Others just want to finish as quickly as possible.
We are all relieved that sacrifices are no longer a part of our services, and that we have service of our heart, the prayers. Vayikra, with all its korbanot and esoteric matters of cleanliness and impurity seems far removed from us today. But the messages the book tries to convey, about love and honesty, still apply, if we care to look and delve a little deeper.