VaYikra 5782 (Shabbat Zachor)
Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
Rabbi Gary Pokras
To put it mildly, the book of Leviticus is a challenge. The entire book completely abandons the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt, leaving it to the next book of the Torah to pick up. Instead, the book of Leviticus focuses almost exclusively on the laws and rites of the sacrificial cult and the priesthood. This is a challenge for us, because it has been almost 2000 years since the end of the sacrificial cult, and the roles and duties of the priesthood have been severely reduced as a result. Yet Torah demands we learn about the sacrifices and the priests in detail.
In parashat VaYikra we learn how to make a variety of sacrifices, such as the burnt offering, the well-being offering, the sin offering and others. How do we make sense of these rituals? What meaning can we apply to our lives today?
The spiritual meaning and function of the various details of the sacrifices have been debated for centuries, leaving us with a rich variety of interpretations and opinions. Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), famously known as the Hafetz Chayim, directs our attention to one small detail of the sin offering for a startling insight:
“But if he be not able to bring two turtledoves, or two young pigeons, then he that sinned will bring for his offering the tenth part of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering …” [Lev. 5:11]
Regarding this verse, the Hafetz Chayim teaches:
“The Torah ensured that even the poorest person will be able to find forgiveness for his sin. Even if he cannot afford two doves, he can bring a meal offering. On the other hand, our Sages tell us that if a rich person brings a poor man’s meal offering, he has not fulfilled his obligation. Nowadays that we have no Temple, we have to give tzedakah in place of the sacrifices. That being the case, a rich man cannot fulfill his obligation by giving that which a poor man would give. He is required to give according to his means and ability, and if he does not do so, he has not fulfilled his obligation of giving.”1
In English, the word sacrifice means to “give up.” In Leviticus, we are commanded to “give up” our offerings – literally to heaven. However, the Hebrew word for sacrifice provides quite a different frame. The word is korbon, and it shares a root with several other Hebrew words that mean “close” or “near.” The purpose of the sacrifices, according to the Hebrew, was to help us grow closer to God. Most scholars agree that prayer replaced sacrifices. However, for the Hafetz Chayim, at least when a sin offering is concerned, it is not prayer, but tzedakah. What an extraordinary idea!
With this commentary, he in effect asks, ‘Do you want to grow closer to God? Then do good in the world. Give tzedakah at a level which is generous for your capacity.’ Alternatively, if he is only speaking about the sin offering, the formula still works: if we have sinned and therefore brought brokenness to the world, we should give tzedakah at a level that is generous for us, to bring healing to the world, and thereby to bring ourselves back towards God.
We don’t need to offer animal sacrifices to be closer to God today. Instead, we should support those in need, to give them what we otherwise might have given “up.” A little prayer never hurts, but an act of tzedakah can really help.