With this week’s Torah portion we move into Levitical territory. Annually, the third of the Five Books of Moses presents a challenge to the Biblical commentator - and has ever since the year 70 AD.
With the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans, animal sacrifice passed from the practice of Judaism. There was simply no longer a place to bring the offerings detailed in the Torah. Thus, the first seven or so chapters of Leviticus - sefer vayikra - dealing as they do with the particulars of ritual slaughter remain largely irrelevant to us. What possible application could there be?
Back then, the Ancient Near East could no more conceive of religion without animal sacrifice than we could imagine a faith without prayer, services or holiday observance. Yes, it was a messy business, but - if you were ‘religious’ - sacrifice was just what you did. Still, I am told that there are rabbis in Jerusalem right now who study the laws of the various animal offerings to be ready, just in case the Holy Temple was miraculously rebuilt tomorrow.
While the mechanics have changed, the notion and purpose of ‘sacrifice’ remains with us. We just think about it differently. To sacrifice is to give up something of value in exchange for something of greater value. Today, we give up of our time, our attention, our financial means in the service of something Higher.
The word sacrifice - in Italian and English at least – is derived from the Latin, and literally means ‘to make holy.’ The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban, from the verb ‘to bring close.’ Sacrifices were and still are actions intended to elevate an undertaking to a higher plane and to bring the worshipper closer to the Source of all Being, the God addressed in prayer or ritual.
In the Book of Micah we read: It has been told to you what is good and what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
The first two injunctions are easy to understand, but what about the third? Surely, the phrase is not meant to be taken literally. Our sages equated walking with God to the performance of mitzvot – to performing acts of goodness, kindness and compassion – for these mitzvot foster a sense of partnership with the Divine. Even more they bring us an ‘it makes me feel good’ sense that we are actually taking a step closer to God and moving in the direction of who and what we ought to be.
A passage in the old Gates of Prayer comes to mind. “How I would rejoice to be free of doubts and perplexities, to know in my innermost being that I stand in the presence of the Most High all my days and nights.” It is in the things we choose to make holy – to sacrifice – that we secure that reassurance and fulfill the spiritual purpose of our being.