Commentary on Parshat Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-6
Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.
Vayikra el Moshe (He [God] called to Moses) — so begins a rich parsha that, on the surface, also reads as one of the more laborious and least understood in the symphony of Torah portions.
Consider that for virtually the entire parsha, we read about the rules and reasons for korbanot (sacrifices) to God, which are offered for a wide variety of life-cycle events. There are elevation offerings of sheep, goats, bulls, and various fowl, with particular instructions for slaughtering, blood splaying, placement of body parts, burning, and mixing in incense. Also described are mincha (meal) offerings — with directions for the types and portions of flour, oil, leavening, and incense — and sin offerings, peace offerings, guilt offerings, and “variable offerings,” all for diverse individual and communally-derived motivations and outcomes.
In our post-Temple era, what are we to glean from these rituals? Almost two millennia after the altar’s physical demise, in this complex, technological world we share, how can we relate to Parshat Vayikra? Noting that the timing of Vayikra occurs shortly before Passover, we might consider approaching the portion’s intricate rituals through two different lenses.
We may currently be fully engaged with the ritual cleaning out of hametz (leaven) from our physical environments and souls. With Vayikra in mind, we can consider the similarity between characteristics that are present in the animals brought to slaughter and our own flawed human nature.
Perhaps we would gain a better understanding of ourselves if we thought of offering the “flighty” spirit of our personalities. By this, I mean those traits that contribute to frivolous diversions and self-deceptions rather than full concentration on, and earnest motivation in, dealing with the important tasks of our lives.
And what of our “bullish” arrogance? Isn’t it time to rip it apart, gut it, and throw it to the fires of spiritual reawakening? How about our sheepishness and passivity in answering the cries of others that we all hear and see daily? And as with goats, how much gossip and other rubbish do we feed ourselves with!
While we may think of ourselves as rationally “free to be” and free to choose, Vayikra, when read in this metaphorical way, seems to point to our more animalistic inclinations. It does so at the time before Passover, perhaps to help us more vigorously cleanse ourselves of psychological and spiritual hametz [leavened food, prohibited during Passover]. If we don’t engage in this self-cleansing process, one alternative is mentioned in the refrain of that old Burl Ives song: “…or would you rather be a mule?”
In a somewhat different vein, each one of us in this season before Passover should take the time to offer to God our own personal hametz, that which we have surely done and continue to render as an offering to atone for the behaviorally or spiritually impure.
Guilty of Swollen Egos
Just as we personally and publicly pronounce confessional prayer of Al Chet (“for the sin [we have committed] of…”) during Yom Kippur, so are we all guilty at one time or another of having overly “leavened” (swollen) egos, and of not having done enough to achieve peace with our neighbors, families, and ourselves. Although the Temple and its sacrificial rites are long gone, let’s take the time once again, now, just prior to Passover, to consider our regrettable actions, and how we might atone for them.
Similarly, as some of the incense provided a “sweet savor to the Lord,” so might we offer up our own sweet thanks for the many spiritual and material blessings in our lives.
Consider that in synagogues, we usually read Parshat Vayikra just a week before Passover. We have made the journey from Mount Sinai — the reading of Parshat Yitro, which contains God’s offering us the Ten Commandments, was about a month ago–to the seder tables at which we’ll be sitting in a little over a week. Now is a good time for us to offer both guilt and thanksgiving offerings, to take the time to consider our individual roles within our families, and as part of the Jewish people and the global community.
Close your eyes and take a very deep breath. Can you feel the sweet aroma of those offerings? Does the fragrance of meal offerings tickle your nostrils, wake you up, and help you do what you must? Will the freshness of spring be present for you to renew your life? Can Vayikra help you gain your senses and embrace a life of freedom and holiness, with all its beauty?
When, as in the opening words of Vayikra, God “calls” to ask these questions, how will you answer?
Pronounced: PAR-sha or par-SHAH, Origin: Hebrew, portion, usually referring to the weekly Torah portion.
Pronounced: SAY-der, Origin: Hebrew, literally “order”; usually used to describe the ceremonial meal and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel, Jews have a seder only on the first night of Passover.)
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.