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Torah Sparks

March 19, 2005 - 8 Adar II 5765

Annual: Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 585; Hertz p. 410)
Triennial: Leviticus 1:1 - 2:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 585; Hertz p. 410)
Maftir: Deuteronomy 25:17 - 19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1135; Hertz p. 856)
Haftarah: I Samuel 15:2 - 34 (Etz Hayim, p. 1281; Hertz p. 995)

Prepared by Rabbi Elyse Winick
Assistant Director, USCJ KOACH/College Outreach

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Vayikra opens one of the greatest theological challenges to confront the contemporary Jew. If we do not pray for the restoration of the sacrificial order, indeed we have already modified our liturgy to remove such references from the Musaf service, wherein lies the benefit to reading the gory and detailed material of the book which lies ahead? We read in order to remember and even if that reading does not imply a desire to return to that form of worship, we read in order to be challenged. We read in order to own our history, even if we cannot make peace with it.

Parashat Vayikra looks at the five basic categories of sacrificial offerings and how those offerings are to be made. The olah (referred to in Chapter 1:1-17) is a burnt offering, totally consumed by flame and reduced to ashes. Male cattle and birds might be offered as an olah. That range (from grand beast to tiny bird) enabled individuals of varying economic status to participate in the offering.

The next category is the minhah, a grain offering (Chapter 2:1-16). The grain was acceptable in a variety of forms: choice flour in its natural state, or choice flour prepared either in the oven, on a griddle or in a pan. No matter the form, only a portion of the minhah would be burnt upon the altar.

The zevah shlamim, or offering of well-being, was the third category of sacrifice (Ch 3:1-17). This offering took the form of cattle, sheep or goat and needed to be free of blood before it was burnt. Unlike the olah, however, it was not burned in its entirety only the internal organs were reduced to smoke.

The hattat and asham are the final categories of sacrifice and they are covered in Chapters 4 and 5. Though they are separate sacrifices, the hattat and the asham function in partnership - the first for purification from transgression and the second for repair following the transgression. The hattat and the asham are specifically designated for inadvertent transgression.

Discussion Topic 1: "Sacrifice as Drawing Near"

"when any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock." (Leviticus 1:2)

Derash: Study

  • The Hebrew root kof-resh-bet, of the word korban or sacrifice is the same as the root of the word karov or near. Thus, offering a sacrifice was a form of drawing near.
  • "R. Isaac taught: Why is the meal offering distinguished in that the word "soul" is used in connection with it (Lev. 2:1)? Because the Holy One said: Who is it that usually brings a meal offering? It is the poor man. I account it for him as though he had offered his very soul to Me." (BT Menahot 104b)
  • "Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was walking with his disciple, Rabbi Yehoshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Yehoshua looked at the Temple ruins and said: 'Alas for us! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel - through the ritual of animal sacrifice - lies in ruins.' Then Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: 'Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness.' For it is written: 'Lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice.'" (Avot d'Rabbi Natan 4:5)
  • "Although the three daily recitations of the Amidah - evening, morning and afternoon - are connected with the three Patriarchs and the three natural divisions of the day, they were also seen as paralleling the offerings brought in the Temple. There, a morning and afternoon communal offering known as the tamid (continual offering) was brought. The evening service was connected to the burning of the residue of the sacrifices at night. On special days specified by the Torah - Shabbat, Festivals and Rosh Hodesh - however, an additional offering (Musaf) was brought (Numbers 28-29). Therefore, we recite and additional Amidah known as Musaf (literally, "additional") on those days." (Reuven Hammer, Or Hadash)
  • "When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: 'Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.' And again, the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: 'I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.' It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: 'I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer. I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.' And it was." (retold in On Wings of Awe, the Hillel mahzor for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What makes the retelling of the precise details of the sacrificial order compelling in an era in which the rituals are extinct? Is our current model of communicating with the divine an evolution from these rituals? Should an era of a central Beit Mikdash return, would we opt to return to them in place of or in concert with prayer?
  2. If, as the midrash describing the young Abraham destroying the idols in his father's workshop suggests, a true God does not eat the foods offered up as a sacrifice, what need is being satisfied through these rituals? Who needs sacrifice? Who needs prayer? Can we envision a reality in which God needs us?
  3. While we live in a framework which commands prayer three times daily, we are not always able to live up to this standard. What does the presence of this requirement suggest about the role of prayer in our lives? What steps can we take to enhance the fulfillment of this obligation?
  4. Avot D'Rabbi Natan suggests that not only prayer takes the place of sacrifice, but the quality of human interaction. This is a fascinating innovation, because it shifts our focus from a God-centered reality to a human-centered reality. Is this a theologically reasonable suggestion? How does it alter the framework of Jewish life?
  5. The Hasidic tale referenced above (which has also been retold by Elie Wiesel and Gershom Scholem) references yet another bygone era. It makes a powerful case for our ability to maintain a relationship with the Divine even as our world goes through radical, and often incomprehensible, shift. And yet, it seems to part with the past with ease, albeit with sadness. Can we call our experience a continuation of a tradition with which it bears little resemblance? Ought we strive to preserve the models built by the past in order to fortify that connection? Does that cycle affect our level of investment in our own spiritual and educational constructs?

Discussion Theme 2: "But I Didn't Mean It"

"If any person from among the populace unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things which by the Lord's commandments ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt." (Leviticus 4:27)

Derash: Study

  • "Have I not emphasized, time and again, that the inclinations of the heart depend on actions. Therefore, when a man sins, he cannot cleanse his heart merely by uttering, between himself and the wall, 'I have sinned and will never repeat it.' Only by doing an overt act to atone for his sin, by taking rams from his enclosures and troubling himself to bring them to the Temple, give them to the priest, and perform the entire rite as prescribed for sin-offerings, only then, will he impress upon his soul, the extent of the evil of his sin, and will take measures to avoid it in the future." (Sefer HaHinukh)
  • "The reason why it is necessary to bring a sacrifice for inadvertent offenses is because every iniquity gives rise to some spiritual blemish in the soul of the offender, which will only merit appearing before its Maker when it is free from all sin. For this reason, the soul of the inadvertent offender is required to offer a sacrifice, affording it the opportunity of drawing near to the God who gave it." (Ramban)
  • "We are all failures. At least one day a year we should recognize it. I have failed so often; I am sure those present here have also failed. We have much to be contrite about; we have missed opportunities." (Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Yom Kippur," in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)
  • "In my heart I will build a sanctuary for God's glory and in the sanctuary I will place an altar for God's splendor. For the eternal flame I will take the flame of the Akedah (sacrifice of Isaac) and for the offering I will offer up my unique soul." (from the words of Bilvavi, a traditional song)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why does an inadvertent sin, a mistake, require a ritual for repair? Can't we just let bygones be bygones?
  2. Once we embrace the notion of ritual as a prerequisite to repentance, what is our analogous practice in the absence of sacrifice? How do we go about restoring ourselves to wholeness? Is this necessary when we have simply made a mistake?
  3. Heschel's suggestion that we are all failures is painful to bear. Perhaps it even elevates sins of omission to a more significant level than sins of commission. What is the impact on our psyche of this approach? Does it create any limitations in our attempts to grow, both personally and spiritually?
  4. Linking the words of the Ramban with the message of Bilvavi, we begin to see spiritual perfection as a goal in and of itself. What new heshbon hanefesh, or self-accounting, might we construct to help us in that quest? How do we focus in on missed opportunities and turn them into opportunities for meaning?
  5. "You still feel guilty after all these years? You should be ashamed of yourself!" How do we strike a balance between taking responsibility for our actions (and inaction) and celebrating our accomplishments and our potential?

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