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Parashat Va-yiqra

March 29, 2007

Parashat Va-yiqra
Paul Hoffman

“And Abel he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord inclined towards Abel and his offering.” (Genesis 4:3) From this passage in Genesis we understand that the institution of sacrifice is as old as the human race itself. Religious instinct is an element of man’s nature implanted in him by the Creator and sacrificial offerings were the earliest expression of that instinct. Here in Genesis, Scripture records the first act of worship in the form of a “minhah to God,” a present offered to the Holy One, blessed be He.

This gift offering represented Abel’s acknowledgment of, and submission to, God as the purveyor of all bounty. By presenting God with his firstlings, the finest that he possessed, Abel would then be worthy to receive his portion as a Divine favor. So noble was this sentiment that it warranted Abel’s acceptance by God as well as that of his gift; as Scripture states “The Lord accepted Abel and his offering.”

As mankind evolves and a world of wickedness is destroyed by God, it is Noah who takes the institution of sacrifice to its next level.

His sacrifices represent more than just an offering of his possessions as he acknowledges that his very life belongs to God.

Finally the ultimate meaning is given to the institution of sacrifice as Abraham is called upon to offer up his beloved Isaac. Abraham’s compliance exemplifies full obedience and total submission to the Almighty as he is ready and willing to honor God with what means more to him than life itself.

This Shabbat we will begin the first chapter of the book of Vayiqra, which concerns itself with all the ancient rites of sacrifice that played such an important role in the history of our ancestors’ religious practices. We will read about all kinds of different offerings: the burnt offering, the meal, peace, sin, and guilt offerings. Different offerings, each with a different purpose.

It must have been a great comfort to the ancient Israelites to have had a different prescription for all that ailed them, and a format that they could follow when they wished to approach God whether in need or in gratitude.

As important as sacrifices were, modernity lends itself to a more spontaneous religious expression as well as a more rounded one. We are taught in the Ethics of the Fathers that the world stands on three things: on Torah, on the service of God, and upon acts of lovingkindness. Once the Holy Temple no longer stood, the sacrificial service was supplanted with prayer, as King David says (in Psalm 51:18): now that I cannot bring a sacrifice, my Lord Hashem “open my lips that my mouth may declare your glory.”

As you enter the realm of ancient ritual at its finest this Shabbat do not forget these words for they begin each Amidah that we recite three times daily in remembrance of our beloved sacrifices.