This week’s Torah portion starts the book of Vayikra, aka Leviticus. It’s one of the less exciting parts of the Torah, in that it mostly deals with the instructions and technicalities of seemingly archaic rituals and mitzvahs. This week in particular… animal sacrifices! So parsha Vayikra is not only archaic but also barbaric! But it’s in the Torah so we’re not only supposed to read it, we’re supposed to KNOW it, inside and out. What possible good could this have for us in 20xx?
To Bring Close
What’s interesting is that when we had a Temple, sacrifices were how the Jewish people connected to God. Prayer did exist, but it wasn’t the formalized structure it is now. In fact, the structure of the prayer service we do have is based off this system of sacrifices. So what’s this process all about? First off, the name for a sacrifice is korbon, which comes from the root karov, meaning to bring close. When we do a sin (or a chet), it’s not that we’ve now become a damned, impure soul, that should be filled with shame. Instead, Judaism looks at a chet as something that creates a divide between you and God.
So the process of teshuvah (or redemption) is about mending that divide. Yes, you can do teshuvah from a purely emotional/intellectual internal place. But that teshuvah will be all the more powerful if there is a physical aspect to the process. And that’s what korbonim were meant to accomplish.
Secondly, sacrifices weren’t punishment. The Jewish court didn’t slap you with a Chattas korbon for breaking Shabbos. It was something you had to make the decision to do. Which means you had to admit you did something wrong. And that’s never easy. Admitting that you made a mistake in effect is a nullifying of yourself. It’s putting aside your own ego for the sake of someone or something else. That’s the definition of humility. And this week I experienced it first hand.
Every week I learn with incredibly insightful Elchonon Cohen at 7:30 on Wednesdays. But yesterday I was absolutely famished and I had gotten to the Pico area around 7:10. So I decided to get a sandwich at a bakery. But here’s the thing. I’m SUPER OCD about time. And if I think I’m going to be late, I actually get some anxiety, I get annoyed and angry really quickly. It’s absurd and it’s one of my things I’m working on.
But never-the-less, I go in and ask how long it’ll take to make an eggplant parmesan sandwich. The girl behind the counter first says 15 minutes, to which I look at my watch and think “ohh that’s cutting it close.” Sensing my apprehension, the girl responds, “but actually probably 7-10 minutes.”
So I order the sandwich. Of course, it takes longer than the predicted 7-10 minutes and now is going past 15 minutes. I’m going to be late. So, I’m folding my arms, I’m fixating on the oven, watching the sandwich cook, I’m giving the girl looks. And she is trying to get it out, but she’s also busy. Finally she wraps up the sandwich, bags it, and puts it on the counter. I snatch the bag and jet out of there without a kind word. I end up at learning with Elchonon maybe 7 minutes late.
It was completely a non-issue. And of course today, I can see how absurd it was for me to even be the slightest bit peeved. But the thing is, in the moment, it wasn’t about the 5 minutes of Torah learning I’m missing, and it wasn’t about wasting 5 minutes of Elchonon’s time. It was honestly about, “You said you’d do something, and that lack of doing is causing me distress. You need to KNOW you’re causing me distress and you should FEEL some of that distress.” How IMMATURE! But let’s be honest. We are prone to be petty from time to time.
But I missed out on an opportunity. Had I taken those feelings of being ‘wronged’ and completely let them go, for the sake of a connection with God, that would have been a korbon. The rabbis say that that’s the type of sacrifice we have today. Because a sacrifice is really about nullifying your wants or feelings in the service of something greater. And when you nullify yourself (in a healthy way) it creates space for other people and, more importantly, for God.
There’s a power in the experience.
So that’s great for a modern way of thinking about sacrifice, but the reality still remains that the text of the Torah is so detailed and intricate. If you’re bringing a sin offering, it has to be such-and-such animal, and the body has to be prepared such-and-such way. And there’s a whole ceremony involved. The level of depth the Torah goes into is even odd for ancient times as regular people never performed the sacrifices themselves, just the priests (kohanim).
So why do we have to know the process with so well? Especially when no one does the ceremony anymore to begin with? And as I asked this very question to Elchonon, after eating my sandwich, he told me that this is the one mitzvah that the Talmud says that you can fulfill simply be learning about it.
It’s great to learn about mitzvahs, but what’s the point if you’re not going to do it? Imagine if you had to study for months for the LSAT, but you never had to take it and had no desire to be a lawyer! What a nightmare. But the thing to understand is that the korbon, the sacrifice ritual was an EXPERIENCE. That there was a power in seeing it happen that connected you to God. I don’t understand how that process brought you closer to God and I doubt any Kabbalistic master is going to be able to honestly explain it in a satisfying way.
But by learning about it and involving yourself in it, the ins and outs, the rules and the process, at that point, you’re able to go there in your mind. The process, though you’ve never seen it first hand, makes a mark on you. They say when you pray, you’re supposed to imagine as if you’re were at the Holy Temple. And in a spiritually sense, that supposedly is where you actually are. So how much more impactful would that prayer be if you were able to imagine the space? Then on top of that have an understanding for purpose and use for all the things in that Temple? It would be beyond simply being there. It’s the same for immersing yourself in the korbon ritual. It’s certainly not something for someone just starting to delve into their Judaism. But as a next level of involvement, it might be transformative.