This week we begin the third book of the Torah: Vayikra. The book's English name, Leviticus, reflects the important role of the tribe of Levi in the early days of our people. Particularly at that time, the Levites (and the priests, or Kohanim, who were one part of the Levi tribe) served in ongoing daily religious life. Their work centered around the special Tabernacle/Mishkan, and they officiated at the various offerings and sacrifices.
This week's portion — and large segments of this third Torah book — describes the different types of sacrifices: for what purpose they were to be brought and by what procedures they were to be offered.
There were many different occasions in which an individual would be expected to bring a sacrificial offering, whether an animal, grain or liquid. In modern times, these many offerings and ceremonies are difficult for us to understand, and it's not easy for us to feel the same about them as did our ancestors. We have not offered these types of sacrifices for almost 2,000 years, and we are not in the same world context as in ancient times.
The various ethnic, tribal and national groups at that time all had sets of sacrifices that people offered. Back then, we had one central Holy Temple, or Beit Hamikdash, to where the people brought the offerings.
Contact and Closeness
What can we learn from these ancient rites? The general Hebrew word for a sacrifice or offering is korban. It is related in Hebrew to karov, which means "close." These were rituals that allowed people to feel "closer" to God. In their own special way, the ceremonies created a feeling of contact and closeness between God and the people involved. The desire to feel a connection to God is something all of us can reflect upon — ancients and moderns.
The Hebrew name of the book (and the portion), Vayikra, also teaches us about this special relationship. The word literally means "and He called," for the Torah states that God called to Moses and spoke to him.
So many places in the Torah state that God spoke to Moses, but here it states that He called to Moses and spoke to him. Here, there is an extra component of calling out. When one calls to another, the first person is reaching out to the second, wanting to make contact.
God's calling out to Moses — and through him, to the entire people — can be seen as one way of establishing a holy relationship. The laws of the various sacrifices follow the establishment of this connection. The korbanot sacrificial offerings were ways to become karov, close to God.
So, how do we achieve a nearness to God today, for we no longer bring the same sacrifices and offerings? Is it possible for us to approach God in other ways?
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, our sages wrestled with this very question.
As told in the rabbinic composition "Avot D'Rabbi Natan," Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his disciple Rabbi Joshua were walking near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. The disciple lamented over the ruin of the special holy place, at which the people atoned for their sins (through animal sacrifices). Yet the master replied that there is another way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed, and that is through deeds of lovingkindness, as it is written in Hosea: "Lovingkindness I desire and not sacrifice."
Certainly, we know of ways to carry out acts of lovingkindness in contemporary times.
Sometimes, these actions require us to "sacrifice" something of ourselves — our time, our effort, our emotional investment or financial resources. We are called upon by God to sacrifice, to come closer, to give something up of ourselves as we strengthen our holy connections and relationships. We can all find ways to respond to the "call."
Rabbi Robert Rubin is a religious leader at Adath Israel in Merion Station.