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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayikra
March 8, 2014 – 6 Adar II 5774

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
Haftarah (Isaiah 43:21-44:23): Etz Hayim p. 607; Hertz p. 424

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

With the Mishkan complete, God calls to Moses to explain the sacrificial system. The first type of sacrifice is the burnt (olah) offering, which could be an animal in a range of varying costs which was not eaten. The grain (minha) offering was a less expensive option. The well-being (zevach) offering, by contrast, is mostly eaten by the priests and the Israelite who donated the animal. Finally, the parasha introduces the purification (hattat) offerings for unintentional sins and sins of omission, as well as reparation (asham) offerings, which are brought for sins against the Sanctuary, for deceit with false oaths and for contingency.

These offerings are treated with great care by the ancient priests and Levites, who provide the ritual conduit between the people and God. The ceremonies surrounding the offerings are operated with precision. When executed properly, these actions please God greatly.

Theme #1: What’s With the Barbeque?

The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: 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 1:1-2)

The beginning of the book of Leviticus is marked by the description of a systematic form of worship. The remnants of this sacrificial cult color Jewish life to this day.

The cultic doctrine of Israel is no more than a Divine commandment, a revelation of Divine grace. God has no need of it; it is purely a gift of the holy to man. Its purpose is to be a symbol and vessel guarding the Divine knowledge God has granted man, a medium of sanctifying His name, a memorial of His covenant. The cult therefore possesses only a conditional but not absolute value. It is valuable as a symbol of Divine grace and His covenant with man. If it is deprived of this value through the fault of man, it becomes an empty vessel. — Yehezkel Kaufmann, History of the Israelite Religion, Volume III, Book I

At the beginning God did indeed only command Israel civil laws and not sacrificial ones. But after they made the golden calf and He observed their sinful ways and moral weaknesses, He was constrained to provide an antidote for their spiritual disease. The sacrifice filled this function, each one of them for particular offenses and weaknesses. They would not have been commanded to sacrifice had they not sinned. This is the meaning of Jeremiah’s words that God had not commanded them — i.e. originally regarding the sacrificial worship — on the day I brought them out of Egypt. — Abravanel

In allowing an agenda of holiness and righteousness to replace the drive of the human heart — our own whims, fads, and lusts — we offer our very core to God as a gift. We make of ourselves altars in the service of redemption. What matters is substituting God’s agenda for our own, and then participating in the ritual, whether lavishly or not. — Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah

Questions for Discussion:

Kaufmann emphasizes that sacrificial offerings are not something God needs for God’s self; rather, humans need them more. Why would be this so? What lessons would they teach the ancient Israelite still getting used to new religious guidelines? Now that prayer has replaced sacrifices as our main form of regular ritual, how do these particular rituals benefit us? Is it possible to think how a re-instituted sacrificial system would inspire us today? Or is that too difficult for modern people to fathom?

Abravanel posits that the sacrificial system exists in the Torah partially to give the Israelites a proper vessel for their ritual needs, to take away the temptations that had led to the creation of the Golden Calf. Is the proximity to the Golden Calf story reason enough to consider the sacrifices to be a response to this incident? Given that there had been numerous isolated incidents of sacrificial offerings in prior passages of the Torah, is Abravanel’s theory feasible? What modern laws, if any, exist to counteract peoples’ baser instincts?

Rabbi Artson sees the sacrificial system as a metaphor of how we give to God today – ideally, with all of our heart and soul, subverting our personal desires, when necessary, for God’s expectations. To what extent is observing Jewish ritual a surrender of self? Are there certain rituals that are more difficult to “surrender” to? What can we, as a community, do to help make rituals more accessible to individuals?

Theme #2: A Salt on the Senses

You shall season your every offering of grain with salt; you shall not omit from your grain offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt. (Leviticus 2:13)

Amidst the details of proper sacrifices is a curious mention of “the salt of your covenant”, a phrase that seems to belong to a different aspect of God’s instruction.

God demands that human beings worship God for the sake of worship, without any expectation of future benefit. In this regard, the Priestly Torah is unlike the other strata of the Bible, in which the concepts of the covenant and of the reciprocity between human beings and God play a central role. The Priestly Torah is unique, in that it grounds the relationship between Israel and God in the concept of pact. The only exception to this rule, where the term “covenant” appears in the Priestly Torah after the revelation of the name “YHWH”, occurs in Leviticus 2:13. — Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices

In any event, berit in our text … should be understood to mean “binding obligation, commitment,” making the use of salt a duty, rather than attributing any covenantal function per se. — Baruch Levine, The JTS Torah Commentary: Leviticus

At creation, God separated the waters above the expanse of heaven from those below it; and the waters relegated to the lower level grieved at being so far from God’s abode. So God comforted them with the promise that their briny oceans would one day provide the salt to be used on His altar. — Rabenu Bachya

Questions for Discussion:

According to Knohl, the sacrificial system, contrary to what many people envision, is not dependent on a relationship between God and Israel; rather, it is mainly a one-way process in which Israel gives and God receives. Is it plausible that these opening chapters in Leviticus is an ancient lesson in “’tis better to give than to receive”? Even if God does not explicitly benefit from the sacrifices (save a pleasing scent here and there), is it possible that God would consider the offerings when it is God’s “turn” to give to the people?

Levine claims that we shouldn’t read too much into the fact that the word “covenant” is included in the description of salting the sacrifices – it’s simply there to remind the reader that salting is required. If so, why isn’t the word “covenant” used in other parts of the sacrificial narrative? Might there be something about salting that is of particular significance? Or is it possible that the use of the word “covenant” is used as a subtle reminder of the importance of the sacred nature of all of God’s commandments, even those found in the priestly section?

Rabenu Bachya presents a theory that the salt for the sacrifices recalls the separation of the waters during the creation, when God promises a use for a key element of the waters that are relegated to Earth. Is this a satisfying answer regarding why the word “covenant” is used regarding the salting of sacrifices? Could this be an alternative reason why many people shake salt on challah on Shabbat? Is it possible that salt can represent the promise of the endurance of Creation?

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