Parshat Vayikra: Approaching with Love

Pnina Omer is Director of Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center for Agunot

Pnina Omer

It appears that the Book of Vayikra presents a unique challenge to the Jewish world, more so than any other book in the Pentateuch. Instead of weaving narratives, it intricately delves into detailed descriptions, offering a rich and multifaceted experience steeped in numerous esoteric insights.

Surprisingly, it is customary for Jewish children of young age to begin their Torah studies with the Book of Vayikra.  Whether this is due to the Midrash’s notion of “let the pure children engage in the laws of purity”, or whether it is because of the Aleph at the end of the word “vaykira” in the first verse of the portion, which is traditionally inscribed in miniature font, thus expressing the humility of Moshe Rabeinu – be that as it may, this pivotal book, is not easy to comprehend, so it’s apparent that great efforts were exerted to place it in the forefront of Torah study. 

Even within the Mishnah and the Talmud, an entire seder is dedicated to this subject, underscoring its profound importance. Moreover, according to the Rambam, 142 of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot revolve around the korbanot, the sacrifices offered in the Mishkan. 

In essence, the sacrifices occupy a central place in Jewish consciousness, meriting a thorough understanding of its significance.  However, it is also known that with the passing of the era of sacrifices, the Jewish world replaced the sacrifice ritual with prayer as a way of serving God.

Praying is called “la’ator” in Biblical Hebrew, meaning to entreat or supplicate. In Bereshit 25:21 it says: “And Yitzhak entreated [“vaye’etar”] the Lord opposite his wife, because she was barren, and the Lord accepted [“vaye’ater”] his prayer, and Rivka his wife conceived.”

Interestingly, in the Ugaritic language, the verb ע.ת.ר [“atar”] means to sacrifice or slaughter.

It’s surprising to discover that unlike the practice in ancient pagan cultures, where offering sacrifices was accompanied by religious texts akin to direct communication with the gods during the ritual (a form of prayer, perhaps?), in Jewish tradition, the act of offering animal sacrifices was primarily technical and not accompanied by prayer. In fact, it involved meticulous rituals performed by the priests alone, and is known as the Seder Ha’avodah, the Sacred Service.   

“In it reigns a holy stillness; the quietude of the Biblical Israeli sanctuary is the kingdom of stillness,” writes Yehzekel Kaufmann in his book, The Religion of Israel. Stillness.

In my view, the stillness is the very essence of the Sacred Service.  It provides us with a space to explore our inner selves; it is a tool of introspection; it is a vessel of self-reflection. So many of the sacrifices are tied to human actions – the thanksgiving offering [“korban Toda”], the burnt offering [“korban Olah”], the guilt offering [“korban Asham”], the sin offering [“korban Chatat”], even the sacrifices offered by the Nazirite [“korban Nazir”] and a woman after childbirth. Seder Ha’Avodah obligates us to pause and direct our gaze inward.

In contrast to the pagan world where sacrifices were meant for the gods, requiring dialogue with them for acceptance or favor, in the Jewish world, sacrifices were indeed offered to God but intended for humans. The Almighty is not affected by the sacrifices; rather, we are the ones affected by them. The sacrifice itself is a gift to the Almighty, a human attempt to draw closer to the Creator of the world.

Even the Hebrew word for sacrifice, “korban,” is derived from the root ק.ר.ב. [“karav”], meaning to draw close.  Mankind desires closeness, and wants to draw near, and thus “offers” [מקריב] something.

If we take a moment to examine the sacrifices found in the book of Bereshit, we can learn something about the essence behind the sacrificial worship. 

Cain offered “from the fruit of the ground,” while Hevel offered “from the firstborn of his flock and from their fat portions.” Cain’s sacrifice was rejected.

Why was it rejected? Because it expressed a distorted religious perception. Cain related to God as a demanding master who required him to set something aside from “the fruit of the ground.” Cain’s experience was that the sacrifice deprived him of something. But God does not need a sacrifice given as an obligation; in fact, God does not need a sacrifice at all! If the ritual does not affect the person, it is meaningless, and therefore, it is rejected.

Hevel, who offered from the firstborn of his flock and even from their fat portions, expressed a deep emotional perception of God, one that reflected profound appreciation and recognition of God’s reality in the world. His offering was given joyfully, with a mindset of abundance.

The giver is the one who benefits.

The sacrifices of Cain and Hevel teach us that it is not the size of the offering, but the attitude with which it is given that determines whether it will be accepted, as it reflects the mental attitude of the giver. 

The second sacrifice mentioned in the Torah is that of Noach, who brings a burnt offering after the flood, a thanksgiving sacrifice, of sorts, for his and his family’s survival. Noach, as the representative of humanity, learned a lesson from the devastating flood, and his sacrifice is subsequently accepted. Noach’s sacrifice teaches us the lesson of gratitude.

The next Biblical sacrifice is the story of the binding of Yitzhak.  It teaches us two important lessons: The first is the notion of complete devotion to God. When Avraham responds to the incomprehensible call to sacrifice his own son, he demonstrates an unwavering faith in the Creator of the universe. The second – perhaps the more important of the two – is found in God’s astonishing command to Avraham: “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad,” conveying the message that God does not desire human sacrifices, but rather our profound love for Him.

Thus, the sacrifice in the story of the binding of Yitzhak teaches us that it is merely an expression. An expression of faith, love, dedication, and gratitude. Sacrifices are just a means to bind the hearts of the people of Israel to their God, and yet this connection is the heart of the matter.

The Sacred Service which is the offering of sacrifices leads us to Avoda SheBalev, service of the heart, and service of the heart is prayer! The late Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks adds his contribution and argues that when we contemplate the Sacred Service and try to understand its essence, we need to examine it within the cultural and philosophical context in which it occurs.

Therefore, when we try to understand the role and importance of the korbanot in the Jewish world, we must first comprehend the Jewish conception of Divinity. A Jew believes that God is the creator of the world and the master of all, but what kind of master is He? He is a master of love. God Himself commands us to love, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

If in the pagan world, a person sacrifices because he is afraid, in the Jewish world, a person sacrifices because he loves.

We are currently in the midst of a terrible war which has taken a heavy toll: a great many have sacrificed their lives. Reality has imposed upon us a price that is almost too high to bear. We did not choose to make these sacrifices; we did not desire to pay such heavy prices. We might have perceived these as sacrifices of hatred.  After all, war is so terrible, filled with so much violence and pain. And, yet, the sacrifices of this war are the terrible price we pay for our great love for the people of Israel, for the Land of Israel, for the God of Israel. These are ultimately sacrifices of love.

This love is also the reason why we are able to continue living despite the ominous prices we have paid and continue to pay. These sacrifices of love have meaning because they also sustain life. As Viktor Frankl famously quoted Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Why then?  For what purpose? For the people of Israel and the Land of Israel. Because we are bound to each other and we are responsible for each other.  Because we have the Almighty.  Because we have a past and a present, and we will make sure that we have a future as well.  And above all – because we have love, and it will prevail.



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