This week’s parashah is Vayikra, the first parashah of the book of Leviticus. It is a quite technical outline of the various categories of sacrifice that would be offered up in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Jerusalem Temple. For contemporary readers, Leviticus is particularly challenging because we are all so distant from sacrificial worship – Jews have not offered sacrifices for over two thousand years, and the Tabernacle was radically different from the synagogue where worship is entirely verbal. In the time of the Torah, sacrifice was part of the landscape that was taken for granted by many religious cultures, so there was no need to explain basic ideas and terminology, but this means that the texts can be wholly opaque for the people of today who have no access to their underlying meaning or the experience of those who took part in sacrificial worship.
The first obstacle to be surmounted is that the English word ‘sacrifice’ is not a straight translation of the Hebrew equivalent, which is ‘korban’. ‘Sacrifice’ literally means that which is made sacred, but ‘korban’ comes from a root meaning to draw near, or become closer. ‘Sacred’ usually implies a certain distance or apartness, whereas the Hebrew is the exact opposite. There is no reason to believe that ancient sacrifices brought people closer to whatever they understood of the Divine realm, whereas that appears to have been the precise purpose of the korbanot.
How the korbanot brought people closer to God is not entirely clear. One can tentatively suggest that the korbanot entailed giving something of ourselves, which is the essence of building – or rebuilding – a relationship, or that they signified our desire that the natural inclinations that led us to act wrongly would be healed and restored to God.
While atonement is a significant theme of the major sacrifices, it was not all encompassing, and sacrifice clearly articulated different aspects of the religious life, from thanksgiving and gratitude to expressions of rejoicing, as well as familial and life-cycle events.
The shelamim offerings are particularly interesting. They were brought voluntarily by individuals and communities to express their love of God, gratitude to Him, and desire for spiritual closeness. Rashi suggest that the term shelamim is derived from shalom because an early rabbinic source says that these offerings have a spiritual capacity to promote peace and harmony in the world. The shelamim offering is equally divided between the altar, the priests and the people who brought it, symbolising the ‘wholeness’ of society that was inclusive rather than confined to separate individuals or groups. Nachmanides, one of the great medieval Jewish commentators, suggests that the word shelamim is related to shelemut, meaning wholeness, because it is not connected with atonement, but moved by a desire for a more spiritualised and ’holistic’ pattern of life.
There was also a range of simple offerings known as meal offerings, consisting only of finely ground wheat flour, oil and frankincense, usually with added water. These offerings were voluntary and personal and because they were inexpensive they were most likely to be brought by people who were poor.
In chapter 2, verse 1, Rashi notes that the phraseology introducing the meal offering is unusual. Literally translated, it means “when a soul offers a meal offering to God …” Of all who bring voluntary offerings, only one who brings a meal offering is referred to as a ‘soul’ or ‘nefesh’. Rashi cites the Talmud to the effect that the Torah recognises that for a poor person even a simple offering entails a great sacrifice and is accounted as if he had given his whole ‘soul’ to God. The simple offerings of the poor, in other words, are very precious indeed.
Sacrifice differed from the worship of our time in the intensity of its physical engagement. For example, the burnt offering described at the beginning of the parashah would be brought by someone whose transgression had not been accidental. He would bring a “burnt offering from the herd, a male without blemish, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance on your behalf before the Lord.” He would lay his hand on the head of the animal, which would then be slaughtered “before the Lord”, and the blood dashed by the priests against all sides of the altar at the entrance to the tent of meeting. The offering would be flayed and cut up into its parts. The priests would then put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire.
The impact of these rites on the worshipper would clearly have been very profound, especially if he had understood the sacrifice as a substitution for what he himself had been deserving of. Laying his hand on the head of the animal prior to its slaughter in that context was a very powerful gesture of atonement, which is not really replicated in a purely verbal act of confession.
This point was made by a great Conservative Jewish scholar, Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who was an authority on the biblical sacrifices. As a Conservative rabbi, he had no interest in restoring sacrificial worship, but he was wont to graphically point out “how strong the impact must have been on our ancestors to witness life and death taking place right in front of them, punctuated by the slaughter of the animal and the sprinkling of its blood on the altar, and with incense all around to relieve the stench of it all.” Rabbi Milgrom’s student, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, still remembers his teacher’s lecture fifty years later: “I remember him pointing out that the drama and intense feeling that sacrificial offering must have aroused were simply not captured in our prayers of today.” Rabbi Milgrom was describing the sacrifices so vividly in an attempt to encourage his students to focus on deepening their own life of prayer and the spiritual world of the synagogues that they would soon be responsible for. Rabbi Milgrom’s lecture is a fascinating example of the dilemmas of modern Judaism, torn between undoubted estrangement and unrequited spiritual nostalgia for a traditional life that we have long left behind.