Five Rashis, Vayikra: Directly with the Divine, in Sound, Sacrifice, and Sanctuary

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

In his second comment on the words ויקרא אל משה, Vayikra 1;1, Rashi understands the name and first word of this book of the Torah to signal that the Voice would reach only Moshe’s ears, not the rest of the people. That assumes that the Voice of prophecy reaches the prophet’s ears, not his head. Suggesting that, except for Hashem limiting it to Moshe, others might have heard it as well. It has physical reality, which is why the Torah lets us know that only Moshe could hear it.

The Challenge of Hearing the Torah

The second part of the comment says the word וידבר, and He spoke, tells us the קריאה, the call, came only with each separate act of speaking (each separate conversation, as it were). But the Torah many times breaks the flow of the text without referring to a new conversation being initiated; those breaks, Rashi says, were for Moshe to pause, consider, absorb, and understand what he had just been taught.

He repeats that on verse ten, the words ואם מן הצאן. The vav starting the verse connects it to the one before, even though there was a break in the text; Rashi repeats that it was for Moshe to pause and understand what he had learned.

In the first of those comments, Rashi linked it to education generally–if Moshe needed time to take in what he had learned, ordinary students obviously do. True and important as that is for successful education, it’s more in the flow of these pieces to note tradition’s image of Moshe Rabbenu struggling to keep up with his Teacher, dictating a book that would become the Torah.

Moshe needed breaks because it was not easy. First, there was a lot of it, but I think that more than that, the specific acts and overall worldview it propounded were, have always been, and perhaps will always be, countercultural. The Torah asks, commands, and demands that we see the world radically differently from those around us, and to act on that different approach. That takes acclimating, even for Moshe Rabbenu.

Coercion That’s Good for Us

On the words יקריב אותו in verse 3, Rashi notes that in the times of the Beit haMikdash, courts could and would force people to bring some of the obligatory sacrifices. It had to be with the person’s consent, however, so courts would pressure the person until he or she said they wanted to offer the sacrifice (the same is true of gittin, bills of divorce; halachic authorities today often don’t have the secular legal power, and are also worried that they might coerce wrongfully, rendering the get invalid and making mamzerim of any of that women’s future children).

It seems like a legal fiction, which makes it terrible or, worse, silly. What meaning can we attach to a statement so obviously forced? Rashi doesn’t deal with it, but Rambam, Laws of Divorce 2;20, offers what I think is the generally accepted explanation.

He says that the law only allows coercion (he’s speaking of a get, but the logic applies to sacrifices as well) when that is the obviously correct course. Any person who refuses to follow that course much have fallen prey to baser instincts or misdeveloped ideas. In Rambam’s words, he’s already being coerced; the court’s not coercing him, it’s freeing him from himself.

We cannot know if Rashi would have agreed with Rambam’s view that people are often acting less freely than they realize; what we can know is that he accepts the common Rabbinic idea that halachic courts are sometimes confident enough of the rightness of a course of action that they will force the person involved to act as he or she should. Nonetheless, a pro forma agreement is necessary, to give the form of consent, even if we know how little the person saying it means it. Because statements have a reality in halachah that thoughts do not.

Kinds of Menachot, Flower Offerings

The second chapter lists the five kinds of flower offerings—flour, baked loaves (either as loaves or crackers), and those fried in either a מחבת or a מרחשת. In verse five, Rashi explains that a מחבת was a shallow pan, such that the oil burned off quickly, frying the flour into a harder pancake than the מרחשת (verse seven), whose depth allowed the oil to collect at the bottom, producing a softer cake.

Sacrifices are so far in our past that I don’t flatter myself that I can make menachot jump off the page or screen—one of the central challenges of the first sections of Vayikra. But the five kinds of offerings do present a question which I think puts us on a path back to having some relationship to these lesser-engaged aspects of a full Judaism.

The question is: which of the five should one offer? Rashi makes clear that this is often a matter of choice, with the Torah giving no clear guidance or channeling us towards one type over another. How should we make that choice?

The answer depends on our understanding of the meaning or impact of each kind of offering, and there is no single answer in Jewish tradition. Whatever way of looking at it one find enlightening and adopts will conceptualize sacrifices and menachot slightly differently, pushing us towards one or other option.

Buried in this Rashi, then, is the reminder that part of having a Beit HaMikdash would be knowing what each of the kinds of offerings signified, and when each is the best way to express our desire to use our material goods to enhance our relationship with Hashem.

The Utopian Idea that Leaders Will Admit Mistakes

Chapter four discusses the sacrifices offered for העלם דבר, when leaders err. There’s one for when the Kohen Gadol rules erroneously about issues related to the Beit haMikdash, one for when the people follow an erroneous ruling of the Sanhedrin, and one for when the king or head of the Sanhedrin commits certain kinds of sins.

On 4;24, the words אשר נשיא יחטא, Rashi says that אשר here means to remind us of אשרי, fortunate. Fortunate is the generation whose king is willing to bring an atoning sacrifice for his mistakes and, all the more so, regrets his purposeful wrongs.

It might be that it’s apt at any time, but it’s particularly apt in eras when admissions of error bring down on oneself the wrath of competitors and observers. Perhaps the king’s impunity eases his way, yet Rashi appreciates the strength of character it takes, the good fortune it bodes for a nation led by people who know that they can step wrong and need to acknowledge it to be able to make it right.

That humans fail does not mean we should not have leaders, even leaders of great power. But we need to inculcate in ourselves and our leaders the necessity of facing up to what’s happened when things go wrong, and doing what we can to make up for it.

The Camp of Israel

4;12 mandates that the parts of the bull the High Priest offers for his sins should be taken מחוץ למחנה, outside the camp. Rashi explains that the Torah means all three of the camps—the camp of the Mishkan, the camp of the Levi’im, and the camp of the people in general. For the בית עולמים, the eternal House, he says that would translate into outside of Yerushalayim.

Seeing Yerushalayim as the equivalent of what, in the desert, was the camp of the nation as a whole portrays that city as defining the nation as a whole, at least regarding the Mikdash. Beyond that is “outside the camp,” irrelevant to the Temple and its service (it might explain the Talmudic view that anyone outside of Jerusalem was considered בדרך רחוקה, on a far path, in terms of offering the Korban Pesach).

It’s a big world, in some ways, and there are many reasons to be in various parts of it. But in terms of the Jewish people’s direct relationship with Hashem, enacted in the Beit haMikdash, Yerushalayim is the extent of it.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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