Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
The Book of Vayikrah
Vayikrah, the shortest of the five books of the Torah, is inaccurately translated as Leviticus (from Latin/Greek) which suggests focus on the Tribe of Levi, when in fact it is the Priests (Cohanim) who are the focal point. The first two Books of the Torah are narrative in nature, tracing the creation of the world to the building of a nation to our slavery and then Exodus to the Mt. Sinai experience to the building of the Mishkan.
Vayikrah is fundamentally different in that it is filled with Mitzvahs-- with the exception of two narratives (dedication of the Mishkan, including the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu; and blasphemer who was executed).The Sages referred to Vayikra as Torat Cohanim, traditionally translated as “the law guide for priests” but also meaning a manual for every one of us on how to achieve the status of Cohen as in G-d’s promise that “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”.
Robert Alter notes that separation is a major theme. The concept of setting apart (havdil root) is repeatedly manifest in the broad range of ritual, dietary and sexual laws. By accepting these rules, we the Jewish people set ourselves apart from other peoples to become holy like G-d. The Torah repeatedly reminds us of the need to keep our distance from the sacred Mishkan; no unauthorized person may encroach (lo sikrav, do not come close).
Purification is another major theme. Profane pollutants that need to be avoided include bodily discharges; various skin conditions; mildew and other blights in buildings, utensils and fabrics.
Professor Alter cites anthropologist Mary Douglas’ focus on the four prime substances in the Mishkan and their global correspondence in Nature. Fire is about the Divine.G-d is manifest in Fire—burning bush; Mt. Sinai awesome pyrotechnic display; travelling pillar of fire at night; Olah offerings that are completely consumed by fire. Blood, which courses through the veins of the living, has a purgative effect whether spilled, smeared or sprinkled as part of the sanctuary ritual. The drinking of blood, the very life of the living, is prohibited. (Olive) Oil, a product of agriculture, is used for dedication of kings and priests. Water, existing in Nature without human intervention, is the universal symbol of purification and cleansing.
Throughout history man has felt the need to bring offerings to his deity. Primitive cultures employed these offerings (including human sacrifice) as a means of placating the deity or evoking blessings for successful agricultural harvests. But the spontaneous offerings recorded in the Torah are different in that they are meant to express thanks and draw closer to G-d. To display gratitude Cain brings grain; Hevel brings sheep; Noah brings animal offerings when he emerges from the Ark.
In addressing the new-born Jewish nation upon its Exodus from Egyptian society, the Torah states " ADAM KI YAKRIV MEKEM” ("Any man that brings close from you a Korban to Hashem”).The word Korban in Hebrew is related to the root-word Karov, which means drawing near. A Korban is a medium through which man builds or re-builds a relationship with G-d. Its offering comes from a sincere inner desire to reach out and become close to G-d. The eating of the Korban may be likened to “breaking bread” with a friend or a celebratory business meal. Salt, for preserving meat and used by the ancients for finalizing agreements, plays an important and symbolic role.
S.D. Luzzato (Shadal) the 19th century Italian commentator sees Korban as an elevation of man’s behavior from addressing a human king to serving the Divine One. Offering a Korban on a fire converts the physical to the abstract. According to Shadal, the Hebrew word for holy (KoDeSH) derives from the Hebrew words yeKuD aySH (burnt by fire).
Rambam advocates a rational approach to Korbanot. The Jewish people, having grown up in and accustomed to a society in which animal sacrificial service was a universal method of worship, could not be expected to suddenly abandon this ceremony. They needed to gradually be weaned off this behavior. The animal offerings, as a first step, were designed to shift the focus away from a pagan deity to a deeper, meaningful relationship with G-d. The magic, magical incantations, blood drinking, violent and sexual orgies of the pagans were banned by the Torah. The Korban was confined to one place (Mishkan/Temple).
Rav S. R. Hirsch and others see symbolism. Bringing an animal offering is a way of expressing the idea that in sinning, one somehow had lost his intelligence and behaved in an animal-like way. By his placing of his hands on the head of the animal being offered the person realizes that by right it is he and not the animal that should be punished. This insight may help prevent repetition of sinful behavior. Rabbi David Hoffman thinks that the animal offerings symbolize one’s complete surrender to the Will of G-d.
Over time the Korbanot degenerated from being the means for improving behavior and reconnecting with G-d to becoming an end to itself. The Prophets condemned these and all other empty ceremonies.
On a psychological level, Korbanot may reflect Man’s earliest aggressive murderous behavior, especially manifest in the offering of human sacrifices. In the depths of his soul (unconscious?) Man senses that killing is unacceptable and violates a sense of cosmic order. Gaining control over the guilt of killing entails repetitive ritualization of animal offerings. This shared experience may create a kind of universal bonding that enables us to better deal with these deep-rooted anxieties and guilt.
Teaching children Sefer Vayikrah
This age-old custom in Jewish education of starting young children off with the study of Vayikra instead of Bereshit is based on the Talmudic dictum”…children are tahor (pure)and sacrifices are tahor. Let the tahor come and occupy themselves with tahor”.
The Lubavitch Rav explains that God’s unconditional love exists in both children and in Korbanot. The inherent bond between the Jew and G-d cannot become impure or soiled. He loves both the innocent child who has not yet studied Torah or performed Mitzvahs and the adult who “has gone off the path” but now seeks to mend his ways by bringing an offering to Him.
Dr. Yehuda Valladares observes that a child’s mind is like a blank piece of paper. By studying Vayikra the child is given a framework for coping with death, blood and other negativities that he will confront in his life. Children also are being taught at an early age that there can be forgiveness even if the “purest” person sins.
It may also be that the Rabbis want to expose the pure, unadulterated, clear-thinking minds of children to the profound human relationship concepts symbolized by and embedded in the Korbanot. Let them absorb these ideas (unconsciously?) before their minds develop psychological barriers like denial, rationalization, and sublimation. I think it is significant that Avraham Avenu discovered G-d when he was only three years old. He found the Truth with clarity (“out of the mouth of babes”) before his conclusions and beliefs could be undermined by these psychological mechanisms.
The Torah opposes any form of magic or superstition yet some phrases seem to point in the opposite direction. For example, when describing the Oleh the Torah uses an ambiguous phrase “V’nertza lo L’chapayr alav” (“it shall be accepted for him”). Nechama Leibowitz surveys how commentators understood this phrasing.
Ramban offers a number of approaches. The Torah may mean that the worshipper shall be reconciled to Him (G-d). Or it could mean that the sin will be “paid off” or expiated by him (Man). Alternately, it may mean that it (the sin) shall become acceptable to Him (i.e., pardoned by G-d).
Rabbi Y.Z. Mecklenburg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-hakabalah thinks the phrasing underscores Man’s efforts to purify himself, to make amends, to confess and show remorse. A Korban does not automatically bring forgiveness from G-d. The offering is a symbolic representation of a person’s desire to repent and reconnect with G-d.
The phrase “Olah eyshey raiach nechoach lashem”(“a burnt offering by fire of a sweet smell unto G-d”) seems to mean that, like humans, G-d can be pleased with and influenced by the appetizing smell of roast meat! How is that possible?
Ibn Ezra understands the phrase to mean that the worshipper is acceptable to God, in the same way a man is pleased by a sweet smell.
Professor Umberto Cassuto sees the phrasing as a metaphor alluding to the acceptance and approval of the inner intentions (gratitude/repenting) of the one bringing the Korban.
Rav E. Ashkenazi in Maasei Ha-shem stresses the idea that smell is among (if not the) most sensitive of our five senses. When one “smells something is in the air” it means he senses that something is about to happen. G-d‘s “smelling the Korban “ is a poetic way of acknowledging the imminent positive changes the worshipper plans as a follow-on to his offering.
Korbanot in Parshat Vayikrah and Parshat Tzav
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag offers us an insightful explanation and helpful outline for understand the variations in order and detail.
Both parshiot deal with the individual (as opposed to communal) offerings. Parshat Vayikrah speaks to the Jewish people “If an individual among you wishes to offer a Korban…” then provides a listing of which Korban is to be offered and for what reason. Those that are voluntary (N’dava) are presented first, followed by those that are obligatory (i.e.,Chova, in the event a person sins).
• Olah (entirely burnt on the Altar) from cattle, sheep or fowl.
• Five types of Mincha (flour offering)
• Shlamim (peace or complete), partly eaten by the owner, comes from cattle, sheep and goats
• Chatat for general transgression (bull; male goat)
• Chatat for specific transgression (female goat or lamb; two birds; plain flour)
• Asham (always a ram) for taking from Temple property; or being unsure of having sinned; or stealing
By contrast,Tzav begins with “Command Aaron and his sons saying this is the ritual (zot torat) for bringing the olah…” and then lists each type of Korban (from the higher level of Kedusha to the lower).Each section describing a different category of Korban begins with the phrase zot torat, which means “this is the procedure”.
Parshat Tzav is aimed at the Cohanim and teaches them the mechanics of and procedures for offering the various Korbanot. It makes no distinction between N’dava and Chova. Certain details are included in both Parshiot because they must be known by both the Cohanim and the individual. Because the Cohen serves as an emissary of the individual bringing the offering, the procedures that only a Cohen can do are also included in Vayikra. After slaughtering of the animal (which can be done by an individual), the rest of the Avodah (service) at the Altar is performed by the Cohan as representative of the individual.
The internal order in the Tzav is based on the amount of the offering that is consumed on the Altar.Olah is totally consumed. Mincha is either totally consumed or partly consumed with the remainder eaten by the Cohanim. The blood and fat of Chatas and Asham are offered on the Altar and the meat is eaten by Cohanim (as a gift from G-d, not the owner).
Shlamim meat is eaten by the owners after the blood and fat are offered on the Altar and after the thigh and breast are given to the Cohanim. This kodshim kalim (lower level of holiness) offering can be eaten anywhere in the camp --in contrast to the previous offerings that are considered to be of a higher level of holiness and can only be eaten in the courtyard of the Mishkan (and only by Cohanim).
Korbanot in the Future
We pray daily for the speedy restoration of the Temple’s sacrificial service and note the service’s connection to Jewish nationalism and independence. Even Rambam the rationalist rules l’halach that in the days of Moshiach, “all Korbanot will again be offered.”
The reason for this may be that the most profound aspect of Korbanot is the never-ending effort to build and re-build relationships between Man and G-d and ultimately creating a bonding and sense of unity between Man and Man. Also,I think that we are expressing our desire to experience the powerful emotions that accompanied and inspired the people bringing Korbanot.
Stu Dubner adds that there is a positive in allowing animal killing in a controlled environment (Mishkan or Temple) where relationship-building is the primary activity. This important combination will be as necessary in the future as it is now.
Some critics of Korbanot think that these “barbaric” ceremonies conflict with Society’s supposed concern for “humaneness.” However, it is worth noting that it is in Judaism alone that there exists an unequivocal prohibition of blood shed, blood consumption and violent orgiastic ritual. As noted, Korbanot fundamentally are about rechanneling aggressive pagan and idolatrous behavior and about building and re-building relationships. Is it possible that societies that lack understanding of the rationale for and practice of animal offerings experience a return to primitive (and perhaps not so unconscious) murderous behavior???