Torah Explorer – Parshat Vayikra
Thursday, March 23, 2023
Going outside of your comfort zone
Are there aspects of Judaism, both in word and in practice, that you find awkward, illogical, or simply uncomfortable? Something awkward might be the use of technology on Shabbat, if one is observant, in the simple fact of needing to use a cell phone to enter our synagogue building. Something illogical might be the story of our founding father, Abraham, nearly slaughtering his own beloved son, Isaac, and that we highlight this very story, the Akedah, by re-reading it every Rosh Hashana. Something uncomfortable might be reading the book of Leviticus, or even praying the Musaf Amidah on Shabbat or holidays, both of which focus on the act of animal sacrifice – the ritual slaughter of livestock — as was done in ancient times. The Temple was destroyed close to 2000 years ago, and therefore, we no longer offer live animals for sacrifice to God. Instead, we pray, we express gratitude to God, we repent, and we make requests or petitions of God as well. We do still focus a lot of attention on reading about and understanding animal sacrifice, especially this coming Shabbat, as we begin to read the book of Leviticus, with Parshat Vayikra. The word for animal sacrifice is Korban, from the Hebrew root to draw close or come near. It was thought that in the sacrifice of animals the Israelites would and could draw close to God, in expressing gratitude, or even petitioning God to forgive sin. “People must have felt that their prayers of gratitude or petition would seem more sincerely offered if they gave up something of their own in the process.” (Baruch Levine, EH, p. 586) Furthermore, “When we give a gift to someone we feel close to, we feel even closer for having given the gift. The korban both reflects and reinforces the Israelite’s bond to God.” (EH, p. 587)
The illogical, the awkward, the uncomfortable aspects of Judaism regarding animal sacrifice are that the animal/offering becomes the conduit, the means of releasing sin from the Israelite. Does the sin transfer to the animal? No. Therefore, how is the person absolved of wrongdoing? How is expiation made for that person? What if the sin happens again? Just take another member of the herd or flock, and all is right in the world? Some clarification might help.
Years ago, I witnessed ritual slaughter in Jerusalem, just before Yom Kippur. Our custom is to throw breadcrumbs in the water to cast off our sins (Tashlich), a benign activity that usually attracts a lot of waterfowl. In Jerusalem, in the open-air market, Machaneh Yehudah, one may purchase a live chicken, gather family members close together, swing the live animal overhead three times, and cast all sins onto the chicken, which is then slaughtered (in the kosher manner) and taken by the family to be eaten. This ritual is called, Kappores, or shluggen kappores. One may also wave money overhead, and then donate it to Tz’dakah, charity. The question again is, does the sin transfer from the animal owner to the animal itself? No. But the awkwardness, the illogical and the basic discomfort with animal sacrifice persists, and the question remains unanswered. Rabbi Dvorah Weisberg explains the ritual practice of animal sacrifice beautifully, in her D’var Torah on Vayikra:
“What were the Israelites trying to accomplish through animal sacrifice? They were trying to reach beyond the known to communicate with the unknown – with the Divine. In Hebrew, the generic word for an offering is korban, which includes the root k-r-b, ‘to draw near.’ The sacrificial system was designed to allow every Israelite to draw near to God. . . The diverse types of offerings also attest to the variety of ways we might imagine and connect with God. The olah offering was wholly burnt on the altar, symbolizing and concretizing the desire to give fully of oneself to the Divine. . . Some offerings require animals, while others make use of mixtures of flour, grains, oil. . .Israelite offerings include things in their natural state and things that have been processed by human beings. Our relationship with God can be mediated through both the natural world and through the work of our hands. . .The word adam in Leviticus 1:2 should be understood not as “a man [who presents an offering],” but as “a human being,” meaning women could also bring offerings. Each of us, regardless of our gender identity, can connect with the Divine. . . Sacrifice offered a concrete avenue for relating to an unseen and unknowable Being. . . When we let go of our discomfort with the sacrificial system for a moment, we can acknowledge the power it held for the Israelites. The very elements that disturb us – and may have disturbed some ancients – make sacrifice so visceral and captivating. When an individual was overcome with guilt or shame, they were able to experience a deeply restorative sense of relief from placing their hands on an animal, seeing its blood on the altar, and knowing that this ritual expiated their sin.”
In the ancient world, our ancestors connected to the Divine through ritual animal offerings and sacrifice: “Something in the human soul responds to ritual. . . There is something comforting about the familiar, the recognizable, the predictable.” (Baruch Levine, EH, p. 585) Today, it is our task to step out of our comfort zone, do all we can to understand these rituals and offerings, and find meaning in their place in our tradition.
Cantor Carol Chesler