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Parashat Vayikra

March 17, 2013

by Rabbi Bob Freedman

The morning liturgy in our prayerbook includes a section for study of the laws of offerings. The rationale for this comes from Taanit 27b where the rabbis envision Abraham foreseeing a time to come when worship by means of offerings will no longer be possible. He asks God, “What will happen to Israel when the Temple no longer exists?” God replies, “I have already long ago provided for them in the Torah the order of sacrifices. Whenever they read it I will deem it as if they had offered them before me and I will grant them pardon for all their iniquities.” At the end of a section discussing prayer in the Tur (Orah Hayyim, chapter 2), Yaakov bar Asher notes that indeed it has come to pass as Abraham foretold and offers a verse from Hosea (14:3) as a solution, “We will offer in place of bullocks [the prayer of] our lips.”

The rabbis who were confronted by the destruction of the Temple made a sweeping substitution. Not only did they prescribe that study about offerings would serve the same purpose as the actual rites, they replaced the rites with verbal prayer, the shaharit, musaf, and minha prayers. What this meant to the rabbis, how prayer, “the offering of our lips” was for them a spiritual technology that simulated the offerings, they did not clearly explain. But a look at the beginning of the portion Vayikra can help us imagine what they might have said.

Vayikra begins with a discussion of the offering called olah. “When a person (adam) from among you brings a korban to God…” is the text of Leviticus 1:3. The plain meaning is that any Israelite could bring a korban. Numbers 15:14 extends the privilege to non-Israelites, a sentiment shared by Isaiah when he said, “My house will called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7) The rabbis had precedent for considering prayer to be equivalent to the offerings and available to everyone.

It’s imperative to remember that the word which the Torah uses for the sacrifice that was brought, korban, does not mean offering. Korban connotes something that draws close. The slaughtered animal and what was done to it to turn it into a korban had the effect of allowing the person who brought it to draw close to the divine presence. The rabbis meant for prayer, their substitute for korbanot, to do the same thing.

V’samakh et yado al rosh ha-olah, “He will lean his hands on the head of the animal…” (1:4) The word samakh cannot merely mean gently resting. In other places it implies forceful laying on and leaning into. In the same way we are urged to “lean into” the words of prayer and to press our intent beyond simple utterance.

The next verse, 1:5, may give us guidance about speaking words of prayer. It says, “He will slaughter the animal before God….” Only after the slaughter does a priest become involved. Here might be two parallels to speaking. The plain meaning of the text is that the person who brings the korban is expected to slaughter the animal himself. So too, Jews do not appoint an intermediary to speak the words of prayer for them; they expect to recite them themselves. Furthermore, saying the words, deliberately forming them with lips, tongue and voice, is a first, necessary step of our verbal korban.

The first verse of our portion and of the entire book of Leviticus is remarkable. Here the usual formula, “God spoke to Moses saying,” is augmented, preceded by the word vayikra, “God called [to Moses].” This wording makes clear that Moses received instruction about the korbanot (sacrifices) from a source completely outside himself. As the korbanot were to draw the offerer to that Wholly Other who called for them, the rabbis may have been suggesting that prayer does the same thing. Though the desire to pray begins inside us, we address our speaking to a completely Other.

In the end the entire olah was burned and turned into smoke on the altar. In that form, as its name olah implied, it ascended to God. That inspired Rabbi Z’ev Wolf of Zhitomir to teach, “Do not think that the words of prayer as you say them go up to God. It is not the words themselves that ascend. It is rather the burning desire of your heart that rises like smoke toward heaven. If your prayer consists only of words and letters, and does not contain your heart’s desire, how can it rise up to God?” [Or HaMe-ir, 3:16c, quoted in Your Word is Fire, by Arthur Green and Barry Holtz (Schocken Books, New York, 1977) p. 51.] __________________________

Rabbi Bob Freedman was ordained at AJR in 2000. He presently serves as cantor of Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia.