"Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When anyone among you brings an offering to the LORD, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock.'" - Leviticus 1:2
The Torah portion for this week is Vayikra, which means "and He called," from Leviticus 1:1-5:26, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 43:21-44:23.
As we begin the book of Leviticus this week, I am faced with the same question that I confront every year when we begin learning about the sacrificial rituals that took place in the Tabernacle: How are these ancient rituals, which seem so removed from our modern culture, still relevant to us today?
Every year, my answer begins by remembering that the Hebrew word for sacrifices, karbanot, is a derivative of the Hebrew word karov, which means "close." The essence of the rituals was to bring us closer to God.
Let's say we lived in a world where every time we committed a sin, a lightning bolt came out of the sky and struck us. We wouldn't sin very often, would we? And let's say every time we obeyed the Word of God, we earned $1,000. More than likely, we would be a lot more obedient! However, God doesn't run the world that way because He wants us to have free choice. Instant consequences for our actions would basically deprive us of the challenge and choice to be obedient or to sin.
God gave us the next best thing to keep us on track - sacrifices. In Temple times, when someone sinned, the elaborate, intricate, and sensory experience of bringing a sacrifice profoundly affected the person bringing it. "That should've been me" is what the person was supposed to feel as the animal was sacrificed. It reminded a person of the evil effects of sin and how truly harmful it was. The worshiper walked away with new resolve and a deeper commitment to obey God.
Today, we don't have sacrifices. We have no visual experience of how sin harms us, so what can we do to help us stay on track?
A story is told about a rabbi who was approached while in the synagogue because he had an important phone call. However, the rabbi just stood in the synagogue without moving to answer the call because another man was in prayer just outside the synagogue door. By Jewish law, one cannot enter the immediate space surrounding a person in prayer because God's presence is there. To the rabbi, it was as if a wall was blocking the door. To the rabbi, spiritual law was as real as physical existence.
We need to make up our minds to do the same. Let us see gossip as garbage. Let us see sin as poison. Let us see disobedience as breathing in harmful fumes. By the same token, let us see good deeds as bringing warmth and light. Let us see obedience as medicine that heals. Let us see the unseen for what it truly is so that we can clearly see the path that leads to God.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President