Parshat Vayikra: The Means and the Purpose – Thoughts on Sacrifices and Shlichut
Rabbanit Rachel and Rabbi Ariel Tal are Straus-Amiel shlichim in Miami, Florida, where Ariel serves as head of Jewish Studies at the Jewish Culture High School
The aleph – the last letter in the word “vayikra” which opens our weekly portion – is written in a smaller font in the Sefer Torah, and is called an Aleph Ze’ira (“small Aleph“ in Aramaic). There are myriad commentaries as to why the Torah begins the Book of Vayikra with a small-sized aleph. The explanation we personally like best is that the little aleph of vayikra teaches us that when we start teaching children the Torah, it’s best to start with the Book of Vayikra – a custom which is no longer very common in Israel or abroad.
Why should we start with the third book of the Five Books of Moses when starting to teach Torah to young children? Why not begin with the first book: Bereishit?
The Ramban explains as follows: “Because all actions of man are comprised of thoughts, words and deeds, God instructed us that when a person commits a sin, he must bring a sacrifice in the following manner: He places his hands on the offering – this is [to atone] for the deed. He confesses his sin with his mouth – this is [to atone] for the words he had uttered. He burns the inside limbs and the kidneys of the offering – [to atone] for his own organs of thought and lust, and the extremities – [to atone] for the hands and legs that are responsible for all the actions of man. The one bringing the sacrifice then throws the blood [of the animal] on the altar – [to atone] for his own blood. All these actions come to remind him that he has sinned to his God, in body and soul. And that if it weren’t for God’s infinite mercy, and His willingness to receive an offering in exchange for the sinner – blood for blood; soul for soul; the limbs of the offering instead of the sinner’s limbs – then his own body ought to have been burned on the altar, and his own blood ought to have been thrown on the altar. As to the parts of the sacrifice that are given to the Kohanim – these are given as sustenance to the teachers of Torah so that they might pray for the sinner…”
It follows then, that the action of offering sacrifices is not the essence; rather, it is an important means given to us by God to help us rectify our ways. The Prophets echoed this idea incessantly throughout the period of the First Temple: Does the Lord want your offerings? Does He need your animal sacrifices? Of course not! God wants your commitment to Him! The real purpose is our soul-work. The act of offering an animal is a Divine commandment – an important means to achieving a goal – but not the ultimate objective.
In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is korban, which is derived from the root kof, reish, bet – letters that also make up the word kerev, denoting closeness. When one teaches the portions of the sacrifices to adults, whether in Israel or abroad, or even to teenagers, the lesson usually turns into some kind of dialogue or debate about animals’ rights and vegetarianism, and the main point is often missed. On the other hand, when one teaches young children about the sacrifices, one can actually get to the core of the matter, and even delve into the nitty-gritty of the offerings and the related laws, without any opposition on the children’s part. With children, one is at liberty to make a clear distinction between the essence and the technical details; between the ultimate purpose and the means to achieving it.
When a family of emissaries embarks on shlichut, it is often difficult to make a distinction between what is truly important and what is trivial. Why set out on emissary work in the first place? In the past, the financial gain may have served in part as the catalyst for such a move. However, in this day and age, when it is so much more expensive to lead a Jewish life abroad, and while salaries in Israel are higher than in the past, the economic aspect is no longer the main driving force.
It goes without saying that every shaliach takes on emissary work for different reasons, but what is common to all emissary families is the desire to have an impact on the Jewish People in the Diaspora, and also (as a secondary objective) to connect Jewish communities abroad to Israel. However, initially a big part of the shlichut is spent on finding the right community and position, and dealing with the salary and the work conditions. Once these are finalized, it’s all about learning how to become a professional and how to work with the community’s committee or the executive team; overcoming cultural and language barriers, and bridging the virtually impossible gap between Diaspora Jewry and Israeli society. These are all weighty factors of emissary work, but still and all, they are not the essence of shlichut. They are simply the means (albeit important ones) to achieving the goal, which is: shaping the Jewish People living in the Diaspora in the 21st Century. Every emissary, man or woman and their respective families, has an important job to do, which entails educating Jews about Torah and mitzvot; bringing Jews closer to Jewish life; helping converts as well as providing stability to Jewish communities in order to reduce assimilation and mixed marriages – which destroy the Jewish People from within. Every shaliach has to learn, much like a young child, how to distinguish between the crucial components of the shlichut and the trivial ones, and not to lose track of the ultimate goal in the process.
It is no surprise that the Prophets rebuked the People of Israel, calling their sacrifices “hypocrisy” and crying out against their sinful behavior. So much focus is placed on the details of bringing a sacrifice, that people have the misconception that the offering itself is the essence and that it atones for all sins. However, the opposite is true! All the particulars of bringing a sacrifice, as the Ramban explains, are the tools which help one engage in introspection in order to improve one’s inner qualities. It is for this reason that 50% of the mitzvot revolve around the Beit Hamikdash and the sacrifices offered therein. A child is able to understand this notion. A child is able to grasp truth without getting lost in the detail. This is what the small aleph in the word vayikra comes to teach us – not to get to tangled up in daily trifles and forget the ultimate calling!
May we succeed, with the help of God, in shaping the Jewish People through the sacred work of every emissary, man or woman, and may the Straus-Amiel Institute continue to help promote the resilience of the Jewish People for generations to come.
The Jewish Culture High School is a new, Orthodox, co-ed high school which opened in Miami this past year. The school has taken upon itself to change Jewish education in South Florida, in particular, and in the USA in general, by providing a full-fledged Torah and general education. The students engage in relevant topics of study, and the school is student-oriented, focusing on the needs of each individual child and on the educational process.