Lessons from the Sacrifices
By Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"Speak to the Children of Israel, and you should say to them, 'A person,
when he will bring from you an offering to G-d, from the domesticated
animals, from the cattle and the flock you shall bring your offerings.'"
We now begin the study of Vayikra, which was given the name "Leviticus" in
the Greek translation. It's an appropriate name, because much of its
content concerns the Tabernacle, the Temple and Priestly Ritual.
This being the case, some think that "Vayikra" isn't especially relevant
today. In fact, I am told that the Reader's Digest edition of the Bible,
faced with the question of what to "condense," simply excised this entire
That's simply not a Jewish view of the Torah. From the call ("Vayikra")
to "... Har Sinai" (Vayikra 27:34), the living word of G-d never ceases to
be relevant. When we look carefully at the Torah, the lessons leap from
the words. The very first word of this week's portion, Vayikra, was
written by Moshe with a small Aleph (the final letter) -- this is a lesson
in Moshe's humility, one that many writers discuss (I did in 5762, for
those who want to read an explanation -- it's found on our web site at
If we are going to discuss the korbanos, the sacrifices, we need to dispel
misconceptions having to do with primitive practices and some idea of a
god that is "hungry" or "thirsty for blood." None of these, fortunately,
resemble what you find in the Torah.
In the Hebrew original, the Torah uses the word "korban" -- this is what
we translate into "sacrifice" or "offering." Rabbi Shamshon Rephael Hirsch
regrets the absence of a better German translation -- a complaint equally
applicable to English. A korban, he writes, neither involves giving up
something of value as implied by "sacrifice," nor is it a gift as implied
The root of the word korban is "karov," a Hebrew word meaning to approach,
to come close. A person is "MaKriv" (bringing close) a korban. He doesn't
"sacrifice" it or "offer" it, he brings it close - and this is not just a
matter of semantics. "The MaKriv," says Rabbi Hirsch, "desires that
something of himself should come into closer relationship with G-d."
[Many mistakenly believe that a korban or offering was simply for
expiation of sin. In the Torah itself, however, most korbanos are not
associated with transgressions, and the exceptions are mostly inadvertent
acts. For the vast majority of deliberate violations, the Torah does not
describe any offering to be used as part of an atonement process.]
In actuality, there are many different types of offerings, involving every
sort of property a person might have -- not only animals, but flour, wine,
water and salt were all placed on the altar. But in addition one
sanctified his or her first fruits, could donate property whether moveable
or land, and gave money as well. All of this is in addition to the foods
destined for the Cohanim (priests), Levi'im, the poor, and for the needs
of the festivals in Jerusalem.
Never in Torah is there any notion of G-d "eating" a korban. They are
called a "re'ach nikhoach," which could be translated "pleasing smell,"
but "re'ach" can mean a spiritual uplift as well. There is certainly no
physical benefit or need fulfilled. The idea of a korban is that it is
pleasing to G-d when we express a desire to make ourselves godly at the
expense of our physicality. This can be expressed in our deeds, in our
charity, and, yes, in the korbanos.
The first offering discussed is the "elevation offering," which was
consumed in its entirety on the Altar. It could come in the form of a cow,
sheep, goat, or even bird -- depending upon the individual. The Torah
teaches us that while a wealthy person might bring an expensive offering
of a cow, the poor man could come with a single dove and demonstrate the
same desire for attachment to the Divine. In fact, one could bring an
offering of mere flour as well!
Next discussed is the Shelamim, or peace offering, followed by the Chatas
for inadvertent sins. There are actually four different varieties of
Chatas, depending upon whether the transgression was made by the High
Priest, the King, the nation as a whole (based upon an erroneous ruling
from the High Court, the Sanhedrin), or by an individual.
Most of the world's religions declare their founder or leader to be
Divinity embodied, or, at least, free from sin or error. The Torah not
only expects even High Priests and Kings to sin, but allows for errors
from the High Court that impact upon the entire nation. There's no
infallibility doctrine, nothing miraculous about our leaders. We follow
the Sanhedrin because G-d told us to do so, not because we attribute
divinity to the Rabbis within.
Look how many lessons we've found in just the first portion of Vayikra,
and we've barely scratched the surface! The Talmud says about Torah,
"Delve into it, and delve into it some more, for everything is in it."
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Text Copyright © 2004 by Torah.org.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis - Torah.org.
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