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Parashat Vayikra

March 18, 2010

Parashat Vayikra
By Susan Elkodsi

Parashat Vayikra begins, “And the Lord called to Moses from the Tent of meeting,” and told him to speak to the people about presenting offerings to God. Given its explicit and detailed instructions for these sacrifices, the book of Vayikra can be considered a handbook for how to be a kohen. Keeping the sacrifices straight; what to bring and why, how to prepare it, and other instructions could make one’s head spin.

A modern worshipper is likely to feel uncomfortable with the concept of animal sacrifice, and perhaps even more uncomfortable with the idea that a kind, merciful and gracious God would require such an act. At the point in history of the Exodus from Egypt, sacrifice was the form of worship for most, if not all, ancient Near East societies. While the concept of a spoken prayer directed at God is alluded to in the Torah, sacrifices seem to be the order of the day.

Maimonides and Abravanel, according to the Etz Hayim Humash, believed that God didn’t intend for us to make animal sacrifices. The Rambam in particular strongly opposed the anthropomorphism of God that’s suggested by terms such as “isheh ray-akh nikhoakh l’ado-nai,” a pleasing scent to God, or the idea that somehow God needed to eat and drink and therefore partook of these sacrifices. The commentary goes on to suggest that sacrifices became the mode of Israelite worship following the incident with the Golden Calf. God realized that the Israelites couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of a transcendent God, and required concrete rituals in order to worship.

When the Second Temple was destroyed and sacrifices were discontinued, communal prayer took its place. Just as the architectural style of synagogue buildings today compared to 100 or even 50 years ago has changed, the style of Jewish worship has also changed, and continues to evolve as new generations struggle with a concept of God and worship that fits their needs.

Whether we build an altar to sacrifice a cow or grain, davven in a synagogue, experience Shaharit at dawn on Masada, say a misheberakh for someone who is ill, or sit in nature and appreciate God’s beautiful world, we share the same desire, to be closer to God.

It’s no accident that the Hebrew word consistently used for various types of sacrifices in parashat Vayikra is “korban,” which is derived from the root kuf-resh-bet, which means to draw close to.

A few weeks ago we read God’s detailed instructions regarding the building of the mishkan, the place where, as God told Moses in Parashat Terumah, “v’shakhanti b’tokham, and I will dwell among them.” God has taken the first step in developing a relationship with the Israelites by dwelling in a special place in their midst.

Looking back at Parashat Terumah, we read that God requested gifts from “anyone whose heart moved him,” as opposed to other instances where all were required to donate. We learn from this that God wants and needs our praise, prayers and blessings just as we need God’s. I remember making a tile trivet in Kindergarten for my parents. They might even still have it somewhere. My gift was from the heart, and so was their appreciation. As an adult, my gifts to my parents come more in the form of shared experiences as opposed to material objects because both of our needs, wants and circumstances have evolved over the years.

So it is with the korbanot, the sacrifices. In the last decade or two, the word keruv has evolved to signify “drawing near” to the Jewish community those who are far from it. That same word can be applied here with a twist: The laws and rituals involved with bringing and performing the sacrifices gave the ancient Israelites a framework for developing keruv, closeness, to God. Today our prayers and ritual observances serve as our korbanot.

As we move closer to the Pesach festival celebrating Yetziat Mitzrayim, the going out of Egypt, I hope that we continue to seek and to feel God’s presence and keruv, not just in our places of worship, but within ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom.


Susan Elkodsi

is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.