March 19, 2021
This Shabbat begins the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra. The entire book is concerned with the sacrificial offerings our ancestors prepared in the Mishkan, and with the general theme of holiness, kedusha. Holiness in this sense means becoming aware that the goal of life is to live in a covenantal relationship with the Creator of the Universe. Imagine the Creator of everything actually caring about each of our thoughts, feelings, decisions, and actions. This requires that we do not make ourselves anonymous but rather see ourselves and what we do as important, significant, meaningful, and worthy of God’s attention. This is a profound, contemporary message. The more our world relies on technologies, the more alienated, anonymous, and disempowered a person can feel. The Torah teaches us the deep importance of building our lives with a different mindset. The rabbis taught that our attitude should be, בשבילי נברא העולם, “The world was created for me.” The ancients understood this to mean, “I should live every single day as if I were the only human being in the world. Then, when I see something that requires fixing, I cannot assume someone else will do the repair. If I do not take care of it, nobody else will!”
The Book of Vayikra anchors this mindset through the non-verbal, intuitive, affective choreography of sacrificial offerings. Our ancestors brought daily offerings, brought offerings when they performed misdeeds, brought offerings when they felt so guilty they could not continue, brought offerings when they felt gratitude or joy. Our ancestors lived life fully, in touch with the core emotions that nourish our hearts and that flow through us with powerful energy. They lived in a giving, responsive relationship with the Source of all reality. They were humbled by knowing that the more they knew the less they understood. Our ancestors looked inward at themselves at least to understand their own actions and motivations, and take responsibility for them. Hence, the system of sacrificial offerings, of korbanot.
The word korban is constructed from the Hebrew root q-r-b which means, “to come close.” Bringing of korbanot on specific occasions (daily at sunrise and dusk, on holidays, and in response to communal and individual actions) constantly stimulated an awareness that humanity can live in close relation to a higher, sacred purpose, that people build lives that are synchronized with the rhythms of the natural world and with the hopes and will of God. Indeed, the system of korbanot provided regular ways of cultivating mindfulness, so that people could live mindfully and not mindlessly.
God taught Moshe and Benei Yisrael how to practice mindfulness through the offering of korbanot. Consider the following tropes to construct a “grammar” of korbanot. “Offerings” are gifts, despite the fact that God does not need food. Therefore, the offerings provide a “container” for people to offer God their minds and hearts. Olah & Mincha offerings are “awareness” offerings. Nobody eats them. They are offered every single day. The fragrance goes up the Heaven, connecting Heaven & earth and filling the Mishkan with a sweet aroma. The Chata’at and Asham offerings are “cleansing” offerings. Once mindful of our relationship with God, these offerings stimulate an awareness of decisions people made from which they had to return to an original intention, uninhibited by guilt. Sin is conceived of either as a burden which must be lifted, or a stain that must be expunged. The chata’at lifts the “weight of that stain,” and the ‘asham clears a person of the anxiety or worry that they might have sinned. Shelamim offerings were offered in response to moments of deep positive emotion: gratitude, joy, satisfaction and well-being.
Rabbi Hayyim ben Solomon Tyrer, 19th century Hasidic master and kabbalist of Tcherovitz, wrote a commentary on the Torah called Be’er Mayim Hayyim. He read the system of korbanot as a way for people to maintain inner awareness of their thoughts, feelings and actions, as a way of rebalancing oneself. In his opening comments, Rabbi Hayyim reflects the Hasidic interest in the grammar of the phrase, “of you.” The preposition “of” or “from” has several nuanced meanings. The opening verse of the parasha says, God said to Moshe, Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle Hashem, let the person shall choose the offering from the herd or from the flock. (Vayikra 1:2) The plain sense of the phrase, “of you,” means, “When anyone from amongst you….” However, a literal reading renders, “When anyone makes an offering of themselves, from what is within themselves…..” Rabbi Hayyim wrote:
The way a person serves God is by modestly exercising restraint over his base instincts, so that those feral instincts descend to the earth while one’s humanity (lit. ruach bene adam) ascends higher and higher. (See, Kohelet 3:21, Who knows if a man’s lifebreath rises upward and if a beast’s breath sinks down into the earth?) This interpretation applies to the verse here in Vayikra: “When a person offers an offering of oneself to God…” This means, “If a person desires to make an offering [literally] of themselves to God, of their own brutality.” Also, the words, “…an offering of cattle from the flock,” means, “an offering of the feral dimension of a person, in order to diminish that brutish force, the cravings for food and drink, or recognition and fame, or sexual gratification, or jealousy. This is the meaning of an offering from oneself, a person offers one’s nefesh to God. Additionally, the phrase, “from cattle or from the flock or from the herd” also has a comparative meaning. The word, ‘from” is used as a comparative, meaning, “than.” The interpretation is, “It is better to make an offering of yourself than to offer an animal.
Rabbi Hayim sees the very possibility of making offerings to God as an act of interiority. The actual slaughter and preparing of the korban provides a concrete way of rechanneling instinctive yearnings and needs. People are insatiable. Human cravings for consumption, sexual gratification, wealth, power and recognition often lead to abusive cruelty. He cannot imagine that these korbanot were offered routinely, mindlessly, in a perfunctory manner. For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; awareness of God, rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6) The offerings of korbanot were designed to heighten our awareness of how people should behave towards each other. They were not shamanistic rituals manipulating divine powers. The message of classical prophets was that God wants humanity to behave like human beings. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. (Isaiah 1:3) The mystical reading of korbanot emphasizes their transformative impact on a person’s consciousness. One took an animal, pressed one’s hands upon its head, felt the heat of its body, the warmth of its labored breathing, the viscosity of its blood. In that moment, the person became one with the sacrificial animal. Isolating those primordial energies, one’s humanity emerged, distinguishing beast from human. That is what Rabbi Hayyim meant when he wrote that the beastial instincts will descend to the earth while one’s humanity will ascend.
I wonder if we in the West are much more primitive than our ancestors. How do we successfully sublimate our base urges, humanity’s potential for cruelty, avarice, abuse, hatred and violence? Through the cathartic experiences of competitive athletics? Warfare? Economic exploitation? Our ancestors organized their entire lives, their daily schedules, the rhythms of the weeks and years, around korbanot, exercising their mindfulness of their status in God’s created universe. They had the potential to re-calibrate themselves constantly in a balanced world in which humanity lived as the fulcrum between animals and God, the physical and the spiritual, the mundane and the sacred. What processes lie at the center of our lives? The physicality of offering Korbanot provided a metaphysical balance that could potentially help human beings know their place in the world, know the mystery of the Creator, and therefore build lives on a foundation of awe, respect, and humility. Where is our center? Where is our balance? Has the Jewish people helped humanity re-gain the balance necessary to ameliorate hatred, racism, abuse, mistrust, violence, and corruption? Korbanot were offerings; the humanity of our ancient ancestors depended upon giving, not taking; offering, not hoarding; valuation, not devaluation; a sense of what is precious and vulnerable, not imitative and discardable.
Last year, I wrote: In the opening verses of the parasha, God said to Moshe: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: “If a person from amongst you wants to make an offering to God……” reading these words closely, Rabbi Moshe David Valle, Italian commentator from the 18th century, wrote:
The verse specifically uses the word, adam, “human being,” to allude to the creation of people at the beginning of the Torah. The use of the word, “adam,” human being, recalls the verse in the creation narrative which states that God created the first human being in perfect wholeness, ”both male and female.” That is why the same word, “adam” is used here in the context of korbanot. Making Bringing offerings to God was a way for people to feel perfected connected to each other, and for humanity to be connected to God. (trans. and interpreted by R Dov)
Rabbi Valle, writing from a mystical tradition, believed that there can be ways for people to find unities together, and in so doing, can bring God into relationship with us. The Torah, for Rabbi Valle, is a Torah of unity, of intimacy, of relationship. For our ancestors, korbanot was their way of structuring life and keeping a perspective on God’s expectations of them. If only we could reimagine a ritual of balance to rehumanize our world. The limitation is not in the wisdom of the Torah; it resides inside of us.