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Parashat VaYikra

March 3, 2014

Give it up!

Harold Ramis, the actor/director/screenwriter of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, just died. May his memory be for a blessing. His movies treat the absurd with earnest seriousness. They are works of comic genius. While discussing Groundhog Day he likened the experience of watching the movie with reading Torah.

The film is the film; It does not change…. But we are different each year, each time we see it…. It’s like Torah. Every year, every Jew all over the world reads the Torah. We start it on the same day, we read the exact same section each week as every Jew around the world. But it’s different each year. I mean, the Torah is the Torah. It hasn’t changed. But we’ve changed.

This week we begin the book of Vayikra, the central book of the Torah. Most of this book depicts a world that simply doesn’t exist anymore, a world of priestly functionaries performing the rituals of sacrifice with bulls and lambs and libations of wine and oil. It is a recipe book; so much of this mixed with so much that makes one kind of offering. Do the ritual correctly, in the proper order and with the proper ingredients, and it will be acceptable. If not, well who knows what tragedy might befall the community?

Every year I read this section hopeful that it will present new insights, new layers for me. If you were to ask me – concerning almost any section of the Torah, even any column of text – I could find a personal connection. I can draw a direct line between almost any Torah paragraph and something in my life that adds a layer of meaning. (Now that I write it, I can’t say whether the experiences of my life add meaning to Torah or Torah adds to my life. Probably both.) But Vayikra is just not a section of the Torah that feels personal. The thought of ‘correctly’ butchering an animal and offering its parts on the altar does not fill me with a warm, fuzzy spiritual feeling. It doesn’t give me the Aha!-spark of self-awareness. The idea of sacrifice is not terribly au courant. Does God want or need our sacrifices? Is God going to consume the meat or appreciate the smell? Like the protagonist from Groundhog Day, I’m having a hard time understanding what God wants me to get from this.

Of course, this year I’m different. Last year I was juggling the assorted issues of my complicated job as cantor and de facto rabbi at a small Conservative synagogue. This year I am lying in bed for 20 out of every 24 hours, waiting for my body to heal. Last year I was in my usual panic, getting reading for Passover. This year we haven’t even celebrated Purim, and I’m not at all sure I can get up the energy to fulfill my obligations, even the one to have fun. It would require an expenditure of energy that I’m not at all sure I have. It would require sacrifice. To have fun. As I anticipate the coming months of obligations, I simply don’t have enough strength to accomplish everything that would be necessary to truly enter into Shabbat, let alone the coming holidays, with the precision required.

There are several words used to indicate a Temple offering. Zevah, isheh, olah – all have the meaning of sacrifice. The English word used most frequently in any translation of the book of Leviticus is “sacrifice.” But the most frequent Hebrew is the word korban, which doesn’t translate easily. The root k-r-b can be translated to mean nearness, close. So a korban can be said to be “That-which-brings-closeness.” Joseph Lowin, the author of HebrewSpeak, an Insider’s Guide to the Way Jews Think, examines the variety of meanings and implications of the words that derive from that root.

… in the Bible we see the verb le-hakriv, “to sacrifice,” and the noun korban, “sacrifice.” Since the root meaning of the English word “sacrifice” is “to make holy,” the question arises: Why did the ancient Hebrews prefer to say that they were bringing an animal near to God rather than making it holy? The question is further complicated by a biblical word for battle, k’rav, which signified originally a “drawing near” to the enemy. (HebrewSpeak, p. 157. Aronson, Northvale, NJ 1995)

One way to understand the central role of sacrifice/offering/korban in our lives, is to understand that, despite the translation of the root that implies closeness to God, sometimes the ikar, the point of the ritual, is not so much the emotional experience of closeness as it is the action of the ritual. Like “naaseh v’nishmah” – ‘we will do and we will listen’ – perhaps it’s a mistake to search for the emotional connection at this moment. Maybe that will come later. Maybe not.

Here this is said of the gift offering. Since one’s offering is a coming near (korban = sacrifice/drawing near) to God, and that is the desired goal and the end of the matter, it makes no difference whether you give more or less. The end is one: coming near to God. This is the very meaning, in fact, of “direct your heart” – like the offering, you are drawn after your own root. This is the life-force of divinity, which has been placed in every thing. (Sefat Emet, 3:3)

Perhaps, in view of the Sefat Emet, the sacrifice and the offering are two different things. In order to fulfill the requirement of the offering, maybe I need to sacrifice perfection. Maybe I will have to sacrifice quantity – and let’s face it, maybe even quality – in order to have any offering at all. Although Vayikra is all about the precise manner in which each korban should be made, it is enough sometimes to make the offering with whatever you have to offer.


Hazzan Marcia Lane has served congregations in New York, New Jersey and Tennessee. She currently lives in Nashville.