Well, here we are again at the beginning of the book of Vayikra. This occasion is often marked by rabbis turning from sermons and articles about the weekly Torah readings to discussions about Purim and, soon, Pesach. It’s understandable, because many of us have difficulty identifying with all this content about offerings and ritual purity. However, this year I will, perhaps foolishly, endeavor to remain focused on the Torah readings rather than the calendar events. This week KORBANOT, temple offerings.
Before I track those scholars, who try hard to find personal meaning in the sacrifices, let’s begin with a word from the Rambam. That great philosopher and rationalist tried to sidestep the entire issue of explaining how we can find meaning in the offerings by reminding us that this was the normal mode of Divine service in the world in which the Jews found themselves. So, this whole process was eminently reasonable to them. Rav Soloveitchik often pointed out that the Torah is an evolutionary document, not a revolutionary one. We will now ignore that position.
The second verse of our book jumps right into the issue, and presents us with many homiletic possibilities, because of the numerous anomalies in the text. Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘When any one of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of domestic animals (BEHEIMOT) from the herd (BAKAR, cattle or oxen) or from the flock (TZON, sheep or goats, Vayikra 1:2). There is actually a lot to unpack in that verse.
Our verse tells us that when an Israelite wants to bring an offering, it should be MIKEM, from you. However, immediately afterwards we’re informed that the offerings should be MI (from) these animals. So, on the literal level, many commentaries explain that it is very important that the offerings truly belonging to the person involved. Rashi goes on to say that our verse refers to the people making these offerings as ADAM, because we should make sure that the ownership of the beast is as obvious as it was during the life of the first ADAM, who clearly owned everything. There being no other claimants.
But there is a whole squadron of authorities who go in another direction. The Sforno states: when he brings himself close to God by means of a confession of his sins and by humbling himself. The concept parallels the verse in Hoshea 14,3, ‘we will pay with bulls after having done so first with our lips.’ One should be submitting oneself in the offering process.
The Chizkuni explains that this process of offerings shall be the preferred way of service now that the MISHKAN, or temporary temple, has been set up. This is the real meaning of YAKRIV, which literally means to come close’, but is better understood to mean ‘sanctify’, and it is truly us who are being sanctified, not the beast.
My favorite effort to give profound meaning to this difficult and alien service is suggested by Reb Chaim Vital, the famous acolyte of the Ari HaKodesh. He is concerned by the egregious repetition in the second half of the verse. We’re told that the offerings should come from BEHEIMOT or domesticated animals. Then we’re told that the animals should either be herding or flocking beasts, but those are the only BEHEIMOT we know. Why tell us both the general category and the specific items?
Rav Vital then teaches that humans are an amalgam of two NEFASHOT or life forces. We contain both a NEFESH BEHEIMIT, animal component and a NEFESH SICHLIT, intellectual aspect. God tells us to offer up that animalistic side within our psyches on the altar of the Mishkan, so that the intelligent and spiritual side will control our life’s actions.
He goes on: All aspects of human spiritual endeavor are for no other purpose than to vanquish (LICHBOSH) all the bestial desires within us. Within all of our Divine service, including prayers and other MITZVOT, the essential point (HA’IKAR) is to offer up the animal force from within you.
Clearly, to many of our spiritual giants throughout the centuries, the main take away from the massive amount of material about the Divine devotions of the Mishkan and later Beit HaMikdash, are to be understood as metaphors. We study this material, not only to fulfill the idea that learning them is tantamount to performing them, but to also learn many spiritual truths about the holy aspects of our being. This is powerful material.
Since returning to Eretz Yisrael almost 5 years ago, I have made it a practice to recite the KORBANOT passages every morning. It’s embarrassing to admit that previously, I rarely paid much attention to them, just skipping those pages in my Siddur. I now find meaning in this preparation for my davening, and feel connected to these still absent practices.
Please, God, we will soon return to performing these practices in the soon to be rebuilt Beit HaMikdash. In the meantime, let’s study and contemplate this material to make these unfamiliar practices nearer to our hearts and souls.