Parashat Vayikra 2019 – The Power of Sacrifice

This week, we begin reading the book of Leviticus, or “Vayikra” in Hebrew. Leviticus is a very detailed training manual for priests at the ancient Jerusalem temple, and includes some of the most beautiful, and some of the most offensive laws in the Torah. We also get a blow-by-blow of each kind of animal sacrifice – sort of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre but with no chainsaws. It is no wonder that many synagogues in the early Reform Movement simply opted to skip Leviticus in the yearly readings. It can be difficult to find much connection and meaning in much of the book, and it is so counter to modern sensibilities that it mostly makes us feel the distance between our beliefs and the Torah.

But I think if we can get past our reaction, there is much to learn about ancient religions, and more than that, if we listen a bit more closely to our tradition, there is much to learn about what it means, and what is needed if we want to draw close to the Divine, to live in connection with what we call God. And some of those lessons run quite counter to modern American culture. As is so often true, Jewish tradition challenges me to look at the world from a different angle than I would be inclined to, and I have come to believe that there is wisdom not only in what I think, but in what I don’t want to think about.

For example, the sacrifices were in many ways the meat industry of their day. The sacrifices fed many thousands of people, and yes, there was a vegetarian option: polenta cakes.

But in our culture, we don’t want to witness the sacrifice of the animals. We hide that away. Instead, our ancestors brought that to the very center of what was most holy. The animals were brought up onto a grand altar as sacred offerings not only to God, but to one another. They were prayed over, chanted over, and
all the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony was directed toward the intensity and power of the sacrifice, of the power of life.

Now I don’t want to live in that time, but I bet if we could get into the magic phone booth, and go back to that time, and get past our own disgust, we might also find a great power and reverence quite different than what we ever experience in our very controlled lives. Who knows how that might change our national relationship to what we eat?

And there is something even more fundamental, and rooted in the Hebrew language itself. In English, we say ‘sacrifice,’ but the Hebrew root means “to bring near,” or “to be in the midst of.” The verb used for making sacrifice shared the same root; to sacrifice is bring near, to the altar, or to God. To our ancestors, this process of offering something of great value to them was part and parcel of getting nearer to God. It was a moment of communion with the Divine.

Those of us who are engaged actively in our spiritual lives know what it is to long for that sort of moment of communion. We might not want to live there all the time, but we yearn for those moments.

Our culture today, though, doesn’t tend to associate such moments with sacrifice. We are taught to focus more on the very important tasks for figuring out who we are, and finding our own voices, and realizing our personal potential.

Our tradition challenges us to reflect on those times in our lives when we sacrificed for others, or for something we believed in, or for something greater than ourselves, and instead of loss, felt a sense of gain, felt we gained a sense of who we are, what our purpose is, what gives meaning to our lives.

When has a sacrifice, an offering helped you feel nearer to God?

What meaning does it give our lives to really give of ourselves? Past what we might find comfortable. What love is it that drives us in moments of altruism. What do we learn about what it means to be human?

Reform Judaism does not reject the great insights of the modern era, but nor should we ignore how our own tradition offers complexity and balance to some of the blindspots of our own culture.

Our tradition teaches us that we must balance our individual needs with the needs of the community; we must balance “I” with “we”, for we are responsible both for “I” and “we.” Our tradition teaches us that both are profoundly important and sacred.

“If I am not for myself who will be for me?” Hillel asked.
But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

Leviticus asks us not only asks us what we want to have, but what we are willing to give up, to sacrifice.

And the first word in the Book is written with a small aleph, and while there are many theories about why, one by the Chassidic master, the S’fat Emet, stands out. It says the small aleph is to remind us that we are not as great as we sometimes think we are, that while we can be wise, our wisdom is not perfect wisdom. The Torah we have, says the S’fat Emet, is not the same as God’s Torah, but it is given to us in a means we can understand; it is shrunk to our size, so to speak. He goes on to say that the entire reason we are commanded to have sacrifices and all is because as humans, without such rituals, we forget that there is a larger truth than what our minds can grasp. And so this book about sacrifices begins with a small aleph, to remind ‘adam’, humankind, to be humble.