This Week's Torah Portion: Why Animal Sacrifices? (Part 24)

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Vayiqra (Leviticus I, 1-V. 26)

This week’s parasha is the first in Leviticus, the third book of the written Torah. Called in Hebrew Vayiqra (“and he called”) from the first word in the book, it is also called in the Talmud Torath Kohanim in that the main focus of the book is those commandments which have some bearing on the Mishkan and the Temple, and therefore on the kohanim, the priestly descendants of Aharon who served there. Presumably this lies behind the English name Leviticus, from the Greek leuitikós, “pertaining to Levites.”

Our parasha deals with five categories of sacrifices which were offered in the Miqdash (“Sanctuary”): the qorban ‘ola (“ascent offering,” which was completely burnt up, I, 2-17); the qorban mincha (“gift offering” of flour and oil, II, 1-16); qorban shëlamim (“peace offering,” whose meat was eaten by the offerant’s family, III, 1-17); qorban chattath (“sin offering,” IV, 1-35); and the qorban asham (“guilt offering,” X, 1, 26).

As we may conclude from the amount of space devoted to them, the Torah invests these sacrifices with considerable importance. For a very significant period of Jewish history (the aggregate duration of the Mishkan and both Temples was well over 1200 years) they had an immediate relevance, and indeed we pray three times daily that the Temple be reestablished soon, in our time, so that the immediacy will be restored. Yet, it is a fact that for over 1900 years we have not had a Temple, and the order of sacrifices has become something of a theoretical matter rather than one of practical halacha, in the realm of prayer: “And we shall pay cattle with our lips” (Hoshea XIV, 3; cf. also Talmud, Ta‘anith 31a).

Since every part of the Torah is eternally relevant, it is fair to ask: of what relevance are the sacrifices to our deprived age?

The word which we have consistently translated above as “sacrifice” is qorban. As anyone with a living sense of the Hebrew language can see, the root meaning of the word is “close, near.” The purpose of the qorbanoth, it would seem, is to bring about a closer relationship between G-d and man. This purpose is made even clearer by the technical verb associated with the bringing of sacrifices, hiqriv, which means “to bring close.”

A review of the story of the very first qorbanoth offered by man, those of Qayin (“Cain”) and Hevel (“Abel,” cf. Genesis IV, 3-5), suggests to us that these were voluntary offerings made by these early men in gratitude for the bounty bestowed on them by Ha-Shem. They desired to “give something back” of what had been given them, a feeling which the Zohar tells us is part of the fabric of Creation.

We are made in such a way that, when we are mature human beings, we cannot truly receive unless we can also give. To receive G-d’s blessing without being able to “give back” creates what the Zohar calls nahama dëchissufa, “the bread of shame,” which then blocks all further reception (cf. in this connection Rabbi Yëhuda Ashlag’s classic Histakluth Pënimith I, 6).

If this is indeed the purpose of a qorban, then we can readily understand the qorban ‘ola and the mincha, both of which are classed as qorbënoth nëdava (“donated sacrifices”). Both are wholly voluntary, as the language of the introductory verses makes clear: “If a man of you would bring a qorban to Ha-Shem … ” (I, 2), and; “If a soul would bring a qorban mincha to Ha-Shem … ” (II, 1). In each case, the donor derives no direct personal benefit from the gift. This is also very much in the spirit of the first qorban. We are told that Hevel’s offering was accepted by Ha-Shem with the words: “And Ha-Shem turned toward Hevel and his/gift” (Genesis IV. 4). Rashi explains this as meaning: “Fire descended and consumed his gift,” i.e., it became a burnt offering.

But what of the qorban shëlamim, whose meat is eaten by the donor and his family? How is that a “gift” to Ha-Shem? Or the chattath and asham, neither of which is by any means voluntary; they are imposed on sinners in order to expiate their sins. These too are called qorbanoth; it remains to be seen how they foster qurva — “closeness” — to Ha-Shem.

The classic halachic commentary ‘Aruch ha-Shulchan by Rabbi Michel ha-Lévi Epstein explains of the human condition at the beginning of the first volume in the following terms:

Animals are creatures entirely of this world, possessing a life-force, a nefesh, but no higher spiritual component, no nëshama. In consequence they are entirely in thrall to their physical natures, driven entirely by their physical lusts and needs, incapable of self-control. It is therefore pointless to punish an animal for “giving in” to its physical nature, for it can do nothing else.

At the other end is the mal’ach, the “angel.” This being is entirely a creature of the other world, wholly spiritual, a perfect reflection of the will of the Creator. If the definition of rewardable good is to carry out the Divine will in the face of all obstacles, then a mal’ach can earn no rewards, since he faces none. The mal’ach is as incapable of disobedience to Divine imperatives as the beast is to the imperatives of the body; again, he can do nothing else.

It is only man who possesses both natures, the physical and the spiritual, and is hence able to reach the heights of Diving service like a mal’ach, despite the blandishment of the body, or, G-d forbid, to abdicate his higher nature and succumb to those blandishments. Thus, only man can merit reward or punishment. It must be emphasized than man is not a mal’ach. We live in this world, but we have the capability of controlling ourselves and using our physical urges only for exalted, holy purposes, as laid out in the Torah.

The general Hebrew word for sin, chét’, signifies a failure (from the same root comes the verb hechti’, “to miss the mark,” e.g. with an arrow). One who sins, even through negligence, has thus abdicated the responsibility inherent in his humanity to be in control of himself at all times, careful and watchful of his actions.

This is what the prophet means when he defines a tzaddiq, a truly just and righteous person, as “anxious about My word” (Isaiah LXVI, 2). The great light of 19th century German Jewry, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, in commenting on Leviticus XVI, 16, explains the phrase “and because of their transgressions within their sins” by noting that the pesha’, the transgression within each chét’, is precisely the lack of zeal and carelessness which leads to sinning “in error.”

The Séfer ha-Chinnuch, a 13th century digest of the 613 Biblical commandments as they occur in the Torah, generally attributed to Rabbi Aharon haLévi of Spain, explains the qorban chattath in terms of this abdication. The sinner has allowed, momentarily, the animal part of his nature to take over. Therefore the solution is maqriv, to bring close that animal nature to the place where the spiritual is exalted, the Temple, and there burn it up completely, demonstrating that his former state of body without intelligent control is no more, the completion of his repentance.

But what about the shëlamim?

One of the subcategories of shëlamim is the qorban Pesach, the Passover sacrifice. We have already noted that the intended purpose of shëlamim is as a “peace offering,” and the etymological relationship between the word and shalom, “peace, tranquility, welfare,” should be obvious.

One verse in the account of the Pesach provides us with some insight into why it is a qorban which is eaten which promotes peace. After we read that each family is to bring its own sheep for the qorban, we read: “And if a household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor who is close will take [it]; according to the number of souls, each according to his eating, you will cover the sheep” (Exodus XII, 4). In other words, be generous, have guests at your séder. It is in part this which lies behind the age-old pronouncement we make at the beginning of the séder: “Everyone who is hungry should come and eat; everyone who needs should come and participate in the Passover.”

In our day, the dining room table stands in memory of the altar, and the meals which we eat on it commemorate the shëlamim in particular. The qorban Pesach thus shows us the way to promote peace: by sharing the wealth with others less fortunate.

From all of the above, we can now derive the eternally relevant values which we learn from the qorbanoth: to be generous, “giving back” from the bounty G-d has granted us; to be vigilant and watchful of ourselves, “anxious about Ha-Shem’s word”; to promote peace and harmony by sharing our shabbath and holiday tables, their beauty and serenity, with others.

If we truly embody these values and live by them, we shall surely merit to see the Temple restored in our days. “Then,” as King David said, “will You delight in sacrifices of justice, ascending and complete[ly burnt]; then will cattle go up on Your altar” (Psalms LI, 21).