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Parashat Vayikra

March 22, 2012

by Rabbi Sanford Olshansky

Many American Jews say they don’t like ritual. Nevertheless, most of us are creatures of ritual, although we may call it habit.We have rituals for how we begin our day and prepare for work, whether or not we include traditional prayers. Parashat Vayikra, the first portion of the book of Leviticus (Sefer Vayikra in Hebrew), is almost entirely about ritual – specifically the offering of sacrifices.In ancient Israel, until formal prayer services developed, probably in response to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, C.E., sacrifices were the main method of worshipping God. These sacrifices addressed needs that we still experience today.

One of the strongest human emotions is guilt.We need ways to deal with feelings of guilt – as individuals and as communities. In Leviticus this is accomplished through sacrifice rather than other methods (Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, San Francisco, 2001, p. 322). As Judaism evolved, other forms of repentance were developed, including tahanun – a plea for mercy in traditional weekday services, prayers for forgiveness that we offer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the tashlikh “casting away (of sins)” ritual. None are as evocative of deep guilt feelings as the animal sacrifices described in Parashat Vayikra.

Most nations of the ancient Near East worshipped their respective gods by sacrificing animals.Some cultures viewed sacrifice as a way to get their gods to do what the worshippers wanted. Other cultures treated the sacrifices as food for their gods. While there are vestiges of such notions in the Torah, ancient Israelites had a different belief system.The sacrificial animal was understood as a stand-in for the worshipper. The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, with the same root as keruv “drawing near,” supports this understanding. In Parashat Vayikra, the worshipper is instructed to put his or her hands on the animal’s head, before it is ritually slaughtered, to dedicate it as a substitute to atone for him or herself (Leviticus 1:4).

Some ancient Israelites probably believed that their sacrificial offerings could atone for any sin.We see a parallel today in people of many faiths, including our own: people who are outwardly pious but lie, cheat and take advantage of others.In ancient Israel, such people were denounced by Isaiah, Micah and other prophets, who insisted that charity, honesty and fairness were higher values than ritual observance.They taught that ritual observance without moral and ethical behavior would not be acceptable to God.We need to pray to assuage our feelings of guilt and to feel connected to God. We make tangible expressions of that need, somewhat recalling the ancient sacrifices, when we make charitable donations to accompany our prayers on special occasions such as memorial observances.

So if ritual fulfills the basic needs of assuaging guilt and feeling connected to God, what do many modern Jews find objectionable? I believe that acknowledgement of a higher Power makes many modern people feel uncomfortable. Having grown up in an age of science and expanding human power, many of us feel a sense of self-sufficiency and control over our lives. This attitude is in direct opposition to the traditional religious beliefs encoded in the ancient sacrifices and stated explicitly in our prayers.Many of us resist acknowledging that we’re not fully in control. Our problem is not with ritual in general but with religious ritual, which expresses our own vulnerability and the ultimate superiority of a Power far greater than ourselves.

I suggest that we deal with our discomfort by recognizing that while we are subordinate to God, we still retain our free will. Neither Leviticus nor its later rabbinic interpretations suggest that we lack choice. Rather they call upon us to make decent and humane choices. For centuries, Jewish children began their study of Torah with the book of Leviticus, not with the Genesis stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, nor with the Passover story in Exodus. This may have been intended to teach, from early childhood, that life involves sacrifice(David Lieber, ed., Etz Hayim, New York, 2001, p. 586). I believe that learning about the ancient sacrifices taught Jews, from an early age, that we’re not alone, that there is a higher Power, to whom we can turn for forgiveness and support. By acknowledging that Power, we can sanctify and fortify ourselves.


Rabbi Sanford Olshansky was ordained at AJR in May, 2011. He serves as Rabbi/Educator and Director of Life Long Learning at Temple Beth Rishon (independent), in Wyckoff, New Jersey.