Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayikra March 15, 2013

We begin this week reading the third book of the Torah, the Book of Leviticus, or Vayikra in Hebrew. This is admittedly the book of greatest difficulty for modern man. It is all about the sacrifices, a concept which to the modern mind seems barbaric, if not downright sacrilegious.

And yet, according to Torah, the practice of bringing sacrifices seems to be quite fundamental. Given that we have not had a Temple for over 2000 years, and the Torah speaks to every generation, then surely there must be something here that we need for our spiritual growth.

The first sacrifice in the Bible provides the background for the first human tragedy to occur outside the Garden of Eden. Consider the following passage from Genesis:

Abel became a shepherd, and Cain became a tiller of the ground. After a period of time, Cain brought an offering to God of the fruit of the ground; and as for Abel, he also brought the firstlings of his flock and from their choicest. God turned to Abel and to his offering, but to Cain and his offering He did not turn. This annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell.

And God said to Cain, “Why are you annoyed and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you will improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, and yet you can conquer it.”

Cain spoke with his brother Abel. And it happened when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. (Genesis 4:2-8)

The commentators explain that Cain brought the most inferior sort of offering (some say seeds of flax), while Abel brought the best of his sheep. Therefore, God rejected Cain’s offering as inferior and accepted Abel’s. Cain’s jealousy of the recognition and warmth God demonstrated towards Abel was the motive behind the murder of his brother.

Yet, why couldn’t Cain understand that Abel had brought an objectively superior offering? God was not demonstrating an unjust preference for Abel, which could understandably solicit Cain’s jealous reaction. He was merely accepting the superior offering. After all, as the text points out, Abel had brought his best while Cain offered his worst.

Upon reflection, some commentators have actually suggested that from a certain point of view, they could evaluate Cain’s response as perfectly reasonable. After all, what is the purpose of offering God a sacrifice? He clearly doesn’t need the gift. The sacrifice obviously expresses man’s gratitude to God for all the blessings He has received. The sacrifice is a way of symbolically acknowledging the goodness of God. It isn’t the gift that is significant, they say Cain would have thought, but the symbolic act.

Since he reasoned that God didn’t need man’s puny gift, Cain decided to bring an offering, but deliberately chose something insignificant so that no one could possibly think that he was so presumptuous as to think that God actually needed his present.

Abel obviously reasoned that if offering sacrifices was a good thing, than the better the gift the more worthy the sacrifice.

The answer to why God rejected Cain’s sacrifice is fundamental to understanding Divine service. The discovery of Cain’s mistake will also explain why we modern people have such difficulty relating to the Book of Leviticus.

If the point of bring sacrifices to God is the very sacrifice itself, then Cain did the sensible thing. In terms of giving God gifts, Cain was certainly correct. Surely ‘less is better’ makes sense.

BUT… if the point of presenting offerings to God is not in the gifts, but rather the offering of oneself to God through the giving of gifts, then one has to do what Abel did, and offer something that is meaningful to you. You cannot sacrifice ‘self’ without engaging in an act that requires self-sacrifice.

Therefore, the whole point of presenting offerings to God is sacrificing yourself to God. It is a profound means of expressing our gratitude and thanksgiving for the immeasurable goodness of God towards us. And as King David said, “I will not offer the L-rd that which costs me nothing.”

In Tune with Torah this week = as part of our preparation for the festival of Pesach which is drawing nigh, let us examine our own hearts and attitudes regarding how we express our gratitude to God for His blessings. G-d forbid that we take them for granted. Rather, let us be a people filled and motivated with thanksgiving and express that in a way as appropriate to each of us as Abel’s gift was appropriate to him.

Shabbat shalom!

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