The message of the korbanot – Thoughts on Parshat Vayikra

The first verse in this week’s Torah portion states, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a man from [among] you brings a sacrifice to the Lord, from behemah (animals), from bakar (cattle) or from the tzon (flock) you shall bring your sacrifice.” (Vayikra 1:1) This week’s Torah portion and the entire book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is at first glance one of the hardest books in the Torah to relate to in modern times. The Book of Vayikra deals mostly with the concepts of ritual/spiritual purity and impurity, animal sacrifices and numerous other concepts which are far from the 21st Century mindset. However, the Torah was given to the Jewish people not as a history book of customs long past, but as a relevant and dynamic guide to life in our own times.

In his work “The Abrabanel,” Don Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel, the medieval Spanish philosopher and Biblical commentator, addresses this seeming disconnect in his discussion in Parshat Teruma. He writes, “Do not think for a moment that the descriptions of the Mishkan, its vessels and its construction, the sacrifices… as well as the rest of the ordinances that were practiced in antiquity, have no relevance for us today in our present state of exile…The answer is that one must realize that any matter that is related in the Torah merits its inclusion because it constitutes supernal wisdom and divine knowledge. Anyone who possesses spiritual and religious sensitivity studies these matters in order to achieve perfection of his soul…” (Abrabanel, Shemot 27:10) Though we no longer bring Korbanot today, there is still an important message that we can glean from studying the ritual of the korbanot which can help enhance our modern day spiritual lives.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, offers a fascinating explanation into the deeper meaning of the three categories of korbanot. Explains Rabbi Sacks, according to the mystical traditions of Judaism a person is imbued with two souls; one a Godly soul, and the other a nefesh behamit (an animal soul). Each of the three descriptions of korbanot in the verse above represents and corresponds to a particular animal-like aspect of the human persona. Regarding the first two aspects of the persona, he writes:
Behemah is animal instinct itself… Animals spend their time searching for food. Their lives are bound by the struggle to survive. To sacrifice the animal within us is to be moved by something more than mere survival….the Godly soul within us is the force that makes us look up, beyond the physical world, beyond mere survival, in search of meaning, purpose, goal…The word bakar, cattle, in Hebrew reminds us of the word boker, “dawn”, literally to “break through”, as the first rays of sunlight break through the darkness of night. Cattle, stampeding, break through barriers. Unless constrained by fences, cattle are no respecters of boundaries. To sacrifice the bakar is to learn to recognize and respect boundaries – between holy and profane, pure and impure, permitted and forbidden…”(Covenant and Conversation 5772)

While the message of both the animal and cattle sacrifices have much to teach us for our times, the third and final category of korbanot, tzon, is especially relevant for modern man’s spiritual growth. Writes Rabbi Sacks, “Tzon (flocks) represents the herd instinct – the powerful drive to move in a given direction because others are doing likewise. The great figures of Judaism – Abraham, Moses, the prophets – were distinguished precisely by their ability to stand apart from the herd; to be different, to challenge the idols of the age, to refuse to capitulate to the intellectual fashions of the moment.” (Covenant and Conversation 5772) Being different, expressing individuality and commitment to standing up for your beliefs is so integral to Jewish practice. So much so, that Rabbi Yosef Karo included this message in the first Halacha of the Shulchan Orach, “One should not be ashamed before people who mock his service to God.” (Shulchan Aruch Ohr Hachaim 1:1). I believe that this message, to be steadfast and committed in one’s service of God, is not necessary only when confronted with external pressure from a non-religious community. A commitment to self must also be present when faced with internal pressure from within a religious community as well.

As of late, there is a growing trend amongst many circles to create labels to categorize the world and people around them. When taken to heart, this “black and white” outlook on life serves as a severe impediment to true spiritual growth. And though there is often a need to streamline for the sake of halachic practice, there is still ample opportunity for personal expression and individuality within halachic boundaries. The Talmud writes, “Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a crowd of people, he says, “Blessed is He who discerns secrets,” for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other.” (Berakhot (58a)) The Rabbis instituted this special blessing to recognize that within the Jewish people, our diversity is to be celebrated. No person can be labeled or fit into a box, for each one is a unique blend of personality, intellect, and creativity.

Perhaps the greatest exponent of this idea was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkanazic Chief Rabbi in the State of Israel under the British Mandate. On the importance of individuality as a necessary facilitator for spiritual growth, he writes, “Each individual must know that he has been called upon to serve [God] according to his own unique understanding and feeling, based on the root of his soul… As he steps along this way of life, in his own special lane, in the path of the righteous that is unique to him, he will become filled with the might of life and spiritual joy. The light of God will reveal itself to him, from the letter in the Torah that is especially his, from which his light and strength will issue forth.” (Orot ha-Kodesh seder rishon, no. 19)

May we all merit to take to heart the message of the korbanot. And with that newfound understanding, may we develop the strength and fortitude to break out of the herd mentality and discover our unique voice, in our own personal service of God. When we achieve that important goal, we will, in the words of Rav Kook, become filled with the might of life and spiritual joy.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He is a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves where he serves as a battalion Rabbi, and is the author of the book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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