I would like to start with a confession: For most of my life, when I have attempted to read through or study the book of Vayiqra, I have been so lost and discouraged that I have given up. Have you ever felt that way about a section of scripture? When I first heard that this is the first section of the Torah that is taught to Jewish children at age of 5 or 6, well, I was speechless! How could a kindergartener understand something I can’t? I now realize that the Jews have the benefit of Chazal and their understanding that was given through Ruach HaKodesh, and faithfully handed down throughout the ages. Today, I am excited to report, I find this book so amazingly rich with timely and relevant lessons, lessons that we can use in our lives, that I am having difficulty narrowing down the topics to discuss. So with that said, let’s look at the sidra “Tzav”.
Korbanot (sacrifices). This is a very difficult subject for us to understand. The whole subject seems archaic and foreign to our “modern sensitivities”. And yet, Hashem had much to say on this subject so it is worth trying, to the best of our abilities, to understand. The Chofetz Chaim explains that it is a special mitzvah to read the section of the Torah that deals with the korbanot. This was even true during the period of time when the actual korbanot were brought to the Mishkan (tabernacle) or the Beit HaMikdash (temple). The korbanot had the ability to atone for one’s unintentional sins, but the study of the Torah of the korbanot has the ability to rectify the root of the problem. This is because the Torah is our antidote to all sin, and by studying the Torah, one’s heart is stirred to obedience and this strengthens the Neshamah, allowing it to take control of the Nefesh Behamah (Animal Soul) and to rein in the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination). G-d arranged things so that the Torah is not only the source of the korbanot, but is, in fact, the root of everything. This begs the question then: why are we so lax in the study and understanding of these instructions?
“When a person studies the laws of sacrifices, it is as if he has offered all the sacrifices.” (Menoachot 110a)
Studying the Torah of the korbanot can bring atonement and protection from our suffering. During the time before the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, if someone failed to carry out any positive commandment, he/she was obligated to bring a burnt offering as a gift, even after he/she had repented from the sin. Nowadays, without the advantage of the actual korbanot, if we commit such a sin, we should study the section of the Torah that deals with burnt offerings. And we are told repeatedly, throughout the Tanakh as well as the writings of Chazal, that Torah study is greater than bringing sacrifices (That is, of course, Torah study which leads to correct behavior…..i.e. proper Torah study. The kind that is actually internalized!) An example is found in last week’s Haftara, which was read for Shabbat Zachor (Sabbath of remembrance):
“Shmuel said to Shaul, ‘Stop! Let me tell you what Hashem said to me last night!’ ‘Speak,’ he replied. And Shmuel said, ‘You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the tribes of Yisrael. Hashem anointed you king over Yisrael, and Hashem sent you on a mission, saying, ‘go and proscribe the sinful Amalekites; make war on them until you have exterminated them.’ Why did you disobey Hashem and swoop down on the spoil in defiance of Hashem’s will?………Does Hashem delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to Hashem’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, defiance, like the iniquity of teraphim. Because you rejected Hashem’s command, He has rejected you as king.’” (Shmuel Aleph 15:16-19, 22-23)
The Midrash HaNe’elam explains that when the korbanot ended due to the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, the study of the Torah did not stop. We may not be able to bring sacrifices today, but we can still study the laws pertaining to them, and by doing so we will receive more help than the korbanot themselves provided.
“How beloved to G-d is the reading of the Torah sections dealing with korbanot!” (Chofetz Chaim)
I realize that many people simply find the whole concept of animal sacrifices difficult to comprehend. What really was their purpose? We are told they were an atonement, but how does that work? Why was this particular means of atonement instituted by G-d? He is not a human like us, so He definitely doesn’t derive any pleasure from them. And He is not like the false gods of other religions requiring bribes or gifts to appease Him. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks proposes an interesting explanation based on Bereshies 8:29-9:6. He states that because we humans are predisposed to violence, we were given permission to kill animals so we wouldn’t kill each other. He goes on to explain that it isn’t that G-d liked or approved of killing animals, be it for food or for sacrifice, but He realized that to forbid it, given our predisposition to bloodshed would be tragic. So this was the “least bad” solution. Letting people kill animals rather than murder each other.
“The common denominator in sacrifices is internal violence – all the dissensions, rivalries, jealousies, and quarrels within the community that the sacrifices are designed to suppress. The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric. Everything else derives from that.” (Ren’e Girard, Violence & the Sacred)
And the worst type of violence within and between societies is vengeance. There is a story in the Mishnah about how Hillel once saw a skull floating on the water and he said to the skull:
“Hashem always brings justice in the end. Because you drowned others, you were drowned, and those who drowned you will eventually be drowned as well, in retribution for drowning you.” (Pirkei Avot 2:7)
R’ Sacks explains that there is no natural end to the cycle of retaliation and revenge. This is a cycle that has caused destruction throughout the history of mankind. History is replete with “Hatfield and McCoy” stories. According to Ren’e Girard (as retold by R’ Sacks in Essays on Ethics), it was the problem that religious ritual was developed to resolve. The primary religious act, he says, is the sacrifice and the primary sacrifice is the scapegoat.
“If tribes A & B, who have been fighting, can sacrifice a member of tribe C, then both will have sated their desire for bloodshed without inviting revenge, especially if tribe C is in no position to retaliate. Sacrifices divert the destructive energy of violent reciprocity”
Therefore, R’ Sacks suggests that the sacrifices, like the eating of animal flesh, entered Judaism as a substitute for violence. And the only effective antidote to violence is the rule of law. We all know that G-d’s greatest desire is that the world be governed by justice. And yet, we live in a world that is still very violent.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (Torah Lights), suggests that our challenge is to redirect our instinctive physical drives properly, viewing them as means and not ends. The key he says is not to deny our physical drives, but rather to elevate them, using them in the service of Hashem.
“Because it is impossible to move suddenly from one extreme to the other…..divine wisdom….could not command that (the Israelites) leave all of those ways of worship, depart from them and nullify them. For such (a demand) would have been something that no human mind could expect, given the nature of the human being who is always drawn to that to which he is accustomed. Therefore, G-d retained the sacrificial acts, but transformed them into means rather than ends, declaring that they must become the implements for directing all such energies and activities into the worship of the one true G-d of the universe.” (Rambam, Guide for the Preplexed, Part 3, Chapter 32).
Just as fire can destroy or purify, depending on how it is utilized, so too our passions and natural desires. G-d is showing us through His Torah how we can redirect our natural instincts. When showing Moshe the blueprint for the Miskan, Rabbi Yehezqel of CMY, teaches that G-d told Moshe not, “let me show you the pattern”, but “let me show you, you”. The sanctuary, along with its vessels and services, were all means to help us understand how we are to draw closer to our Creator. Drawing closer to Hashem is the ends.
It was not the Mishkan, or the ritual objects, or the korbanot that were sacred in and of themselves. It was their intended purpose that made them holy. And that purpose was to draw people closer to Hashem. It is not about the object, but about what one does with it, and how one relates to it. That’s what makes it holy. Any object can be used to purity or to defile. And any object or person has the capacity to bring blessing or, chazveshalom, curses and death! It all depends on the purpose for which things are utilized.
THE GOAL OF JUDAISM IS ETHICAL AND MORAL ACTION!
Whatever “it” is, if it doesn’t cause you to walk in G-d’s ways, it is worthless. This can and does, unfortunately, include Torah study, Shul attendance, and other so-called “holy” endeavors. The purpose of any ritual is to bring us closer to G-d, which is evidenced by our actions and lifestyles. Just as He is compassionate, we too must be compassionate, etc., etc.. (I am going to assume here that you are all familiar with the 13 attributes of Hashem we are to emulate).
What is the litmus test to determine if our rituals are just worthless rituals? (See Galatians 5:22-23) Are you unloving? Grumpy? Joyless? Have no peace? No patience? Are you unkind to others? Do you procrastinate or avoid the chance to do good for other people? Are you quick to complain when things don’t go your way? Do you speak or behave harshly towards others? Do you find it difficult to refrain from gossip? Slander? Do you find it difficult to see Hashem’s hand in every detail of your life? Including your trials? Do you dress or behave in an immodest manner? Do you find it difficult to control your urges or cravings? Do you find it difficult to keep your eyes and ears from things which provoke ungodly thoughts, which ultimately lead to ungodly actions?
Look, no one is perfect. At least no one I’ve ever met! And yet, that shouldn’t stop us from trying. To realize we have areas of weakness is actually half the battle. The problem is when we realize we have weaknesses, and yet do nothing to try to improve ourselves. Then our rituals are just empty rituals.
“You shall build me a sanctuary in order that I may dwell in your midst” (Sh’mot 25:8)
Having G-d in our midst can only happen when we act in accordance with His Divine characteristics. The Mishkan, the Beit HaMikdash, the Synagogue, the sacrifices, liturgy (prayer), Torah study, , the mo’edim, or whatever other rituals we are involved in are all just means to an ultimate end – WALKING WITH G-D AND ACTING IN ACCORDANCE WITH HIS WILL! If whatever we do does not draw us closer to Hashem, we are wasting our time. Unfortunately, too often the means are substituted for the end! When we become blind to the reason for our rituals, and allow them to become central, they lose all meaning. What are they inspiring?
“Even though you bring Me burnt offerings and offerings of grain, I will not accept them……but let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24)
The value of a sacrifice is its proper use as a means to an end.
“Thus said Hashem: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not the rich man glory in his riches. But only in this should one glory: In his earnest devotion to me. For, I, Hashem act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; for in these I delight declares Hashem.” (Yirmeyahu 9:22-23)
“If you delve into the matter, you will see that the world was created for man’s use. However, man is at the center of a great balance. If he is drawn after worldly pursuits and alienates himself from his Creator, he corrupts himself and ruins the world around him. But if he rules over himself and unites himself with his creator, thus availing himself of the world as an aid in the service of his Creator, he elevates himself, and the world is uplifted with him. For all creatures are greatly uplifted when they are used in the service of the perfected man who is sanctified through Hashem’s holiness.” (Ramchal, Mesillas Yesharim, Chpt. 1)
Properly utilizing this world, including, but not limited to our rituals, is a prerequisite to our holiness. Only then can we hope to impart holiness to this world in which we live.
“Rav Kruspedai said: ‘when a person in a beit knesset or beit midrash mentions matters relating to the sacrifices and how they are offered, and concentrates on it, (he can rely on the) covenant which ensures that the angels standing ready to accuse him (on account of his sins) will be unable to bring harm upon him. They will be capable of speaking only in his favor.” (Midrash Hane’elam, Parsha Vayeira).
By learning the laws of the offerings we silence accusing angels (which we have created by our improper thoughts, speech, and actions), we actually take away their ability to bring harm to us. Indeed, they will have no choice but to speak in our favor. If we would study the laws of the offering every day, we could save ourselves from all our troubles.
So ladies, as we study the Torah of the Korbanot, I would remind each of us that we are told to keep the fire burning continuously. This means we have an obligation to continuously serve Hashem, and not to lose our fire and fervor as we do so. First we need to provide a spark, and then the challenge we face is keeping the fire burning. We are all different, so what sparks our fire might be different. But use whatever creativity Hashem has given you to light that initial spark. Listen to or make music, enjoy or create art, meditate, walk in nature, find reasons to throw a party, or if you are like me, keep reading and learning. And once you have ignited that spark, remember it will need room to burn. If you schedule every moment of your day with activities, or fill every silence with words, or clutter your life with too much “stuff”, they how in the world do you expect the fire to ever grow? A fire without fuel will not keep burning, and definitely will not grow. And just as the kohanim were required to remove the ashes each day, we need to make sure we too are removing the ashes of our past mistakes and circumstances. With each new day, we must remain steadfast to our commitment to leave the past in the past, never letting it remain and accumulate, or it will eventually keep our fire from burning properly, and could actually extinguish it all together. One of the miracles in the Beit HaMikdash (see Pirkei Avot 5:5) was that the rains did not extinguish the fire of the woodpile on the mizbeiach. I pray we too remain constant, never allowing our fire to be extinguished by obsessing over our physical needs. When the trappings of this world rain down upon us, I pray we too will see a miracle, in that our fire not be extinguished!
Be blessed and be a blessing,