Posted by: Subway Conductor | March 19, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Vayikra

With this week’s portion we begin the third book of the Torah. This book is called Vayikra in Hebrew which means “called.” The first words of the portion are “And the Lord called to Moses.” In English, the name of the book is Leviticus from the word Levite. This tells us something about the subject matter which deals with the rituals carried out in the Temple by the Levites and particularly the sub-group of the Levites, the kohanim. This week’s portion describes the various sacrifices that were brought to the Temple, which included both communal and individual offerings. The communal sacrifices were both on a daily basis and for Sabbath and holidays. The individual offerings were both free-will and obligatory. 

This subject matter raises the vexing question – what were these animal sacrifices all about? How is bringing an animal to slaughter in the Temple a religious act? It is very difficult for us to understand the religious significances of the sacrifices, partly because there has been no sacrificial system since the destruction of the Temple more than two-thousand years ago. However, in biblical times, the rituals carried out in the Temple in Jerusalem were at the very center of religion. The Sabbath and Festivals were celebrated by special offerings. Atonement was brought about by means of animal sacrifices. As we approach Passover, consider that in biblical times the main event of the holiday was the acquisition of an animal by each family which was slaughtered at the Temple and then served at the Seder. So, how are we to understand the sacrifices?

Maimonides proposed a radical interpretation in his philosophical work the Moreh Nevuchim – The Guide for the Perplexed. In this work, Maimonides presents many explanations from a rationalist perspective on difficult questions from the Torah, including matters such as miracles and prophecy. Concerning the sacrificial system Maimonides argues that the Torah included sacrifices as a compromise. G-d does not need nor want animal sacrifices, but in ancient times all religions included sacrifices and the Israelites would not have accepted a religion without them. Afterall, they were already being presented with a religion that was a tremendous innovation and departure from the religions around them. Whereas most ancient religions were polytheistic, Judaism insisted there was only one G-d. While all other religions had idols, statues and images of their gods so that one could see the god that was being worshipped, Israelites had to worship a G-d who was invisible with no physical image or form. The God of Israel also demanded ethical and moral behavior on the part of His adherents. We see how difficult these religious innovations were for the people if we read the Bible. Particularly the prophets remind us repeatedly that the Israelites kept falling back into idol worship and they constantly berated them for not caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. This was not a religion that was easily implemented as the national religion. Therefore, when it came to sacrifices, the Torah made a compromise, allowing the people to continue with animal sacrifices but limited to one place, in Jerusalem.

This explanation of Maimonides is not widely accepted. Other medieval philosophers argued with him and pointed to the fact that there are instances in the Torah where G-d seems to be pleased with the offerings. When Noah leaves the ark, the first thing he does is to offer up sacrifices and the Torah states, “The Lord smeeled the pleasing odor.” We also need to remember that the sacrificial system carried out in the Temple was not a side-show. It was the center of religious life in biblical times.

The word for sacrifice in Hebrew – korban – comes from the root which means “to be close.” It seems that for our ancestors these rituals did connect them with G-d.  When it comes to the sin-offering that was brought by individuals who had inadvertently transgressed a commandment, it is possible to explain that bringing a sacrificial animal was part of the atonement process since the loss of an animal represented a financial sacrifice on the part of the individual. He was giving up something important. We can also suggest that there was an aspect of vicarious suffering involved. The individual understood that really he should be punished and the animal was in his place. But when it comes to the communal offerings and the individual free-will offerings, we struggle to explain how these brought people closer to G-d. Indeed, even in the Bible we find expressions questioning the validity of the sacrifices. The prophet Hosea, speaking for G-d declares, “For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; Obedience to G-d, rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) I do not believe that the prophet would actually have advocated the elimination of the sacrifices. What Hosea was demanding was adherence to a religious life that required caring for the poor, the widow, and the orphan as well as animal sacrifice. The one without the other was hypocrisy. The prophets over and over again warned the people that it is unacceptable to G-d to mistreat the poor and then bring sacrifices to the Temple.

We should also keep in mind that three times a day we daven for the rebuilding of the Temple. When the Temple is rebuilt, the sacrificial system will be reinstated. Perhaps, when this occurs, we will be able to understand the religious significance of these rituals.

Good Shabbos!!


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