And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a man from [among] you brings a sacrifice to the Lord; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice. [Leviticus. 1:1-2]
This is certainly an awkward sentence. At the start of this week’s Torah portion and the book of Leviticus, G-d calls Moses, then speaks to him. Then He tells Moses to speak to the Israelites and then say what he was supposed to say.
Strunk and White would not approve.
Enter Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi: G-d summoned Moses to instruct him on a sensitive but vital subject. By this time, the Tabernacle was complete and ready for operation. It would be used mainly to accept the sacrifices of the millions of Israelites. This would require space, time and money. The Kohanim, or priests, would have to work fast to handle the holiday rush, particularly on the eve of Passover. The Torah uses the Hebrew word “Vayikra,” or “he called,” a term of endearment as well as rapid response.
What is a sacrifice? Here’s one definition you can ignore: “the offering of animal, plant, or human life or of some material possession to a deity, as in propitiation or homage.”
That’s not what the Torah means. The sacrifices brought to the Tabernacle and later Temple were meant to reinforce man’s contact with G-d. Indeed, the Torah uses the word “Adam” for somebody with an offering to the altar. Rashi says the reference is to Adam, the first man. He sacrificed animals as part of his divine service.
Although an animal sacrifice is verboten in our woke world, the concept makes total sense. Until the aftermath of the Great Flood, man did not eat animals and certainly had no right to kill them for sport. In the Sinai Desert, the wandering Israelites could not eat meat unless it was from a sacrifice in the Tabernacle. A small range of kosher animals were eligible to be brought to the altar.
Why a sacrifice? The offering would serve as an atonement for the accidental sin of man. In Judaism, accidents happen and could include even sinful thoughts. That could be corrected with what is called a burnt offering, where the sacrifice all goes up in smoke.
But why involve an innocent animal? As the commentators such as Rabbi Haim Ibn Attar see it, that’s the spiritual reason for an animal’s existence. The ritual slaughter of the animal saves mankind and the world. Man is no exception to sacrifice, it’s just that most of the time he doesn’t realize it.
There’s a second reason for a sacrifice. It is brought out of thanksgiving. We show our appreciation to G-d for saving us — whether being set free from captivity; recovering from sickness; reaching shore safely after a long sea journey, or a woman who gives birth. No, it wasn’t Lady Luck. It was divine protection, and a moral person says thank you to his creator.
The Torah requires that every Jew bring a sacrifice. The rich man shells out for a bull; the blue-collar stiff can bring goats or sheep. The poor can bring something as small as a meal-offering — or flour and oil. The rule is that none of these offering can be stolen or blemished, and all must be brought freely.
For nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people have been unable to bring sacrifices. The Temple was destroyed by the Romans and their successors stopped Jews from entering, let alone maintaining a presence, on the Temple Mount. Instead, we have prayer that substitutes for the Temple service. Every day, we read the portions of the Torah that deal with sacrifices and Temple service.
Prayer must be as sincere and unblemished as the sacrifices. The key element of prayer is that it must come from the heart. Mumbling some words while checking your phone doesn’t count. Indeed, this is considered offensive.
Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen was a Torah scholar who lived in the 19th Century near Lublin, Poland. He was regarded as a boy wonder, a genius in Jewish law and hasidic thought. But his years were bitter, particularly after he divorced his first wife, which he regretted for the rest of life. His tract Resisai Laila, or “Night Shards,” deals extensively with the need for and character of prayer. Everybody prays, the sage wrote, but the devout Jew prays with his heart in a total effort to reach G-d.
“But the kingdom of the House of David, which is the level of prayer, has no relevance to the strangers at all, particularly in prayer of the heart. And this is not within them…”
What should we pray for? There’s the usual menu of health, wealth and love. That’s expected. But the Talmudic sages who composed our daily prayer were more ambitious. Our prayer book contains numerous references and requests for the return of the Temple and our living as a free people in the Land of Israel. We pray to build Jerusalem; we pray for rain; for repentance and the wisdom to understand how much we need G-d.
The Talmud says that the return of the Temple and its service will be simpler than that enumerated in Leviticus. We will no longer bring sin-offerings for the simple reason that we will not sin. Instead, all of our sacrifices will be to thank G-d for a life of freedom, plenty, piety, calm and love.
They will be busy times.