Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayikra March19, 2015

Leviticus, chapters 1 – 5

As we begin the book of Vayikra/Leviticus, there is a remarkable shift in the Torah. Instead of stories involving people and events, we turn now to the laws regarding the sacrifices to be offered in the Tabernacle, which you will remember was completed in last week’s Torah reading.

These first chapters in Leviticus are admittedly some of the most difficult sections for contemporary readers.  The Temple was destroyed some 2000 years ago and the sacrificial system ended at that time.  The Sages invested considerable effort in seeking to understand the deeper meaning of the sacrifices and what they represented with regard to our relationship with the God of Israel so that the inner essence of the sacrifices would not be lost with the cessation of their implementation.

They discovered the first clue in the second verse of the first chapter:

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: when one of you offers a sacrifice to the Lord, the sacrifice must be taken from the cattle, sheep or goats. (Lev. 1:2)

It looks forthright enough.  However, in Hebrew the word order of the sentence is unusual and revealing. What it actually says is “when one offers a sacrifice of you“. The essence of sacrifice is an offering of ourselves; the outward manifestation of our sacrifice is but an expression of our heart’s intent.  Therein lies the fundamental issue of sacrifice – to give ourselves to God.

It has been suggested that ego is man’s greatest stumbling block on the path to holiness. Sacrifice, self-denial, self-discipline for the sake of heaven is a direct assault on the ego for the purpose of spiritual growth.  Even a cursory review of the lives of the Patriarchs and the prophets demonstrates that self-denial is an integral part of the path towards a holy life, the path to which we are called by God’s commandment which we will read in an upcoming Torah portion:  “You shall be holy as I am holy.” Lev. 11: 44-45

The verses that teach about sacrifice used three distinct words for the animals to be offered.  The first is  behemah (animal) which refers to a domesticated animal, such as a household pet.  These are not predators or hunters; domesticated animals thrive on food and attention.  One could suggest that they are self-absorbed to a certain degree.  To sacrifice such an animal was to declare that the person offering it wanted his or her life to be spent in more worthy pursuits than serving oneself alone.  When an Israelite brought a behemah to sacrifice, he was announcing his intent to live for more than himself, to be focused on more than mere survival.  He wanted to thrive and grow and reach for greatness in God.

The word bakar, cattle, in Hebrew means to “break through” like the dawn breaks through the darkness of night to usher in a new day.  Cattle have a propensity for stampeding.  Unless constrained by fences, cattle are no respecters of boundaries. To sacrifice the bakar is to learn to recognize and respect boundaries – between the holy and the profane, the pure and the impure, the desirable (virtue) and the forbidden (sin).

Finally tzon, the Hebrew word for flocks, represents the herding instinct of humans – the powerful drive to follow the crowd, to go in a direction simply because those around us are doing likewise.  Biblical heroes are distinguished precisely because they knew how to stand apart, to be different, to challenge the idols of their day, to refuse to capitulate to the convenient and the popular.  That, my friends, is ultimately the meaning of holiness according to the Torah. Kadosh, the holy, is something set apart, different, separate, distinctive.

By now we should recognize that rather than being something we “give up”, a sacrifice is actually the means for coming closer to God.  It’s not about giving up; it’s about moving higher up!

In Tune with Torah this week = recognizing that, contrary to the opinion of some scientists who claim we are no different than animals, we have the opportunity and privilege to choose intimacy with God, virtue over vice, holiness over selfishness.  Animals don’t do that; we do.  So, the question we ask ourselves:  how am I doing in relation to the three types of “animal” sacrifices?

Shabbat Shalom!

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