Rabbi Menachem Creditor with Sara Birnbaum
(March 25, 2020)
Parashat Vayikra describes in vivid detail the five types of sacrifices, the ancient Israelite method of worship. Most korbonot (offerings) are of animals, with the exception of the meal offering (a plant-based offering of flour, oil, frankincense and other flour-based offerings). Ritual sacrifice was a cross-cultural norm in the ancient world, utilized to pay homage to a god (or gods). According to James L. Kugel:
“The sacrifice—the passage of a small, palpable, breathing animal from life to death and from the world of the living upward through the flickering flames of the altar—spoke louder than any prayer.”
This form of worship was what the Israelites knew; it gave them comfort to engage in a ritual that was familiar in the context of the covenant between God and Israel.
The Israelites needed a system to connect with God (a need clearly on display during the episode of the Golden Calf). God, in turn, gave the Israelites the opportunity to give of themselves, one method of many Judaism has included over the millennia. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained:
“… the act of renunciation. We give up something of ourselves, offering it to God in recognition of the gifts [God] has given us. It is remarkable how readily the sages found substitutes for sacrifices, most notably in the form of prayer, but also in Torah study (learning about the sacrifices is equivalent to bringing them, say the rabbis), charity, and hospitality.”
Sacrifice was the Israelites’ way of being close with God. How might we, as moderns, be inspired by this seemingly outdated (and gory) system?
We can give more of ourselves in devotion to God, service to others, and doing everything in our power to make amends for our misdeeds. Judaism has developed many ways of being close with God and those around us, through practices of prayer, justice, and gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness). As the ancient rabbis taught by example:
פעם אחת היה רבן יוחנן בן זכאי יוצא מירושלים והיה רבי יהושע הולך אחריו וראה בית המקדש חרב [אר״י אוי לנו על זה שהוא חרב] מקום שמכפרים בו עונותיהם של ישראל. א״ל בני אל ירע לך יש לנו כפרה אחת שהיא כמותה ואיזה זה גמ״ח שנאמר כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח
“Once, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem,
and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him and saw the
Holy Temple destroyed. Rabbi Yehoshua said: ‘Woe to
us, for the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven
has been destroyed!’ Rabbi Yochanan responded: ‘My
son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of
atonement just like it. And what is it? Acts of kindness,
as scripture says, ‘For I desire kindness, not a well-being
offering.' (Psalms 89:3).