“Its entrails and legs shall be washed with water, and the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord” (Leviticus 1:9).
The time has come to open the third Book of the Torah, Vayikra, and at first glance, it seems quite different from the narratives of the first two books. Unlike Bereshit, which opens up with the creation of the world, or Shemot, which opens up with the evil decrees of the Egyptians against the Israelites, Vayikra opens up with instructions for performing animal sacrifices.
And the instructions are quite graphic. We are presented with detailed descriptions of numerous types of animals being slaughtered, blood being sprinkled on the altar, the removal of the dead animal’s innards, and pieces or whole animals being burned on the altar. And if that weren’t enough, we’re told that the smell of the burning flesh of the animal is actually quite pleasing to God.
Just to be fully transparent, I’m the type of person that has to lie down when I give blood. I can cut up a chicken for Shabbat, but anything more than that and I start to get a bit queasy. So as I’m reading about the different types of sacrifices, the two voluntary sacrifices, the olah and the shalem, as well as the two obligatory sacrifices, the chatat and the asham, I try not to imagine too many of the details. No offense intended, but I just find it gory and honestly a bit gross.
Beyond that, I find it quite difficult to connect to animal sacrifice as a spiritual endeavor or worship, and I know I’m not the only one. So we have to dig a little deeper to find meaning and relevance as we read these parshiot.
In The Guide for the Perplexed (3:32), the Rambam explains that offering sacrifices was the prevalent form of worship during the Israelites’ imprisonment in Egypt. So when God took Am Yisrael out of Egypt, instead of forbidding sacrifices, God allowed them to continue these offerings; but instead of them offering sacrifices to foreign gods, they would instead make these sacrifices to the God of Israel.
The most interesting and radical implication of the Rambam is that sacrifices had no intrinsic importance; they were only being used as a tool for God to redirect the Israelites’ idolatrous tendencies towards the God of Israel.
The Rambam is helpful to us modern readers; the reason we can’t relate to the sacrifices is because thankfully we don’t come from an idolatrous culture. But it brings up other issues, one we’ll touch on here, and one we’ll leave for another time. If the sacrifices don’t have intrinsic importance, what about the future Temple, in which the Rambam himself teaches that there will be animal sacrifices? That one we’ll leave aside for now.
The more personal, intimate question is what can we gain as modern readers of this text? Beyond a snapshot of ancient ritual that served as the basis of Divine worship in a world long-gone, what does it teach us today?
Rebbe Tzadok HaCohen of Lubin, one of the great Chassidic masters from the 19th Century, says that we learn an essential lesson in our personal Divine service from this Rambam: the importance of desire.
He teaches that the essential aspect of prayer is the desire to come close to God. God does not need our prayers, nor does God want us to mumble through our prayers with no intention; God desires our desire. The same is true of animal sacrifices; God is not nourished through these offerings. The Rambam teaches us that the importance of the sacrifices was not the sacrifices themselves; their importance was in their expression of desire to come close to God. The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, which also means to come close, teaches this as well.
So as we open the Book of Vayikra and read through the various sacrifices, we can imagine more than the flesh and blood. We can meditate on the flames of the altar, which were commanded to keep burning at all times. And just as the fire for God on the altar must never stop burning, so too we can hope and pray that our inner desire to come close to the Divine always burns brightly.