March 23, 2012

We begin a new book of the Torah this week, Vayikra, or Leviticus.  Most of the book describes in detail the many and varied korbanot, sacrifices, that the people ofIsrael were to make in the Tabernacle.  While the descriptions seem to be applicable to the time when Moses and the people were still wandering through the desert, many modern scholars believe this book was written by priests for the priests who presided over the sacrifices offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.

In our modern society, the idea of sacrificing animals may seem both foreign and unpleasant.  Some would describe it as disgusting and repugnant; others would call it cruelty to animals, protesting it as morally offensive.

In ancient society, however, sacrifices and offerings to God were considered not only appropriate but also necessary expressions of faith.  The word korban literally means “draw near” and reveals the purpose of the offerings.  They were meant to unite the worshiper with God.  By offering sacrifices, a person is saying thanks to God or seeking forgiveness for sins.  The drama and beauty of the sacrificial service, along with the music, prayers, and strong odors of incense, created an atmosphere of awe.  In presenting a sacrifice, one was giving something important of oneself to God.  For the ancients, the smoke of a burning sacrifice on the altar was material proof of a person’s love and reverence for God and for God’s commandments.

One of the leading teachers of Torah in the 20th century, Nehama Leibowitz, explains that the sacrifices are a positive means of promoting communion with the Divine and a symbol and expression of a person’s desire to purify himself or herself and become reconciled with God.  Despite the fact that rabbis and interpreters have over the millennia honored the tradition of sacrifices, even praying for their reintroduction, many believed prayer was superior to sacrifice as a form of worship.  They argued that while the offerings depended upon a particular place and altar, prayer could be offered anywhere and anytime.  Prayer consisted of the quiet meditations of the heart or words of the mouth expressed in a whisper, a song, or simply spoken.  The Midrash Tanhuma tells us that prayer is greater than all sacrifices.  As we delve into Leviticus, we will examine our movement’s posture on communal worship.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides argues that sacrifices were an early form of worship given to the Jewish people so that they could learn how to serve God without feeling different from the people surrounding them.  Slowly, Maimonides says, the people learned that “the sacrificial service” is not the primary objective of the commandments but that prayer is a better means of obtaining nearness to God.  Agreeing with the early rabbis, Maimonides emphasizes that the superiority of prayer is that it can be offered everywhere and by every person.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests that prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice, prayer is sacrifice.  This Shabbat is National Day of Unplugging ( in which we are asked to sacrifice something of ourselves by taking a “tech detox.”  By “unplugging” you will enhance your Shabbat experience and cajole yourself to focus on prayer.  Heschel observes that in true prayer, we try to surrender our vanities, to burn our insolence, to abandon bias, dishonesty and envy.  Prayer is the means through which we sacrifice our selfishness and greed, and we touch with our power for truth, mercy, and as in days of old, “draw near” to God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham