Looking through the Smoke: A Transparent Message
Looking through the Smoke: A Transparent Message
Reading much of the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra, the third Book of the Torah), and its first parashah – also called Vayikra – can feel like searching for meaning through smoke as thick as that produced by the very sacrifices the book and our parashah describe. It is dense, repetitious, and seemingly relates little to our lives.
In this portion we learn about the various laws pertaining to the five types of sacrifices offered by Jewish worshippers for over a thousand years. These sacrifices took place in the portable sanctuary – the Tabernacle or "Tent of Meeting" in the wilderness – and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. They included:
- The olah, "burnt offering" (Leviticus 1:1-17): This voluntary korban ("sacrifice," coming from the root "to bring close") was the most common offering, bringing the donor closer to God. Always an animal, it was slaughtered and fully burned, that is, sent up to God. Hence the name olah, which means "goes up."
- The minchah, "meal offering" (Leviticus 2:1-16): Generally also a voluntary offering, the minchah consisted of flour and oil (unleavened), cooked or uncooked. A portion was to be burned on the altar together with the spice, frankincense. The rest was eaten by the priests. This offering was often given by those too poor to afford an animal for the olah (see Vayikra Rabbah 3:1)
- The zevach sh'lamim, "offering of well-being," sometimes called a "peace offering" (Leviticus 3:1-17): This offering of thanks or gratitude was not completely burned. A prescribed portion was burned on the altar, part was given to the "priests," kohanim, and the rest was eaten as a festive meal shared by the donor and guests.
- The chatat, "purgation or sin offering" (Leviticus 4:1-35; 5:1-13): This offering was given to atone for an unintentional sin (related to the word, chet – sin, denoting "missing the mark"). The sin involved could be individual or communal, and the offering was most often an animal (although a meal offering was acceptable). The sacrifice involved splashing the blood on the altar, then allowing the priests to eat the meat of the animal.
- The asham, "reparation or guilt offering" (Leviticus 5:14-26): The asham was handled in the same way as the chatat except that it was required that this sacrifice be a ram. It was most usually offered by someone who had stolen property. The offender had to restore what was taken plus twenty percent, and then bring the asham to be forgiven by God.
The descriptions of the details of these sacrifices are, in a word, excruciating. One example of the extreme minutiae in the parashah will suffice. If one offers a sheep as a chatat:
The offerer shall lay a hand upon the head of the purgation offering, and it shall be slaughtered . . . The priest shall take with his finger some of the blood of the purgation offering and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and all the rest of its blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar. And all its fat the offerer shall remove . . . and this the priest shall turn into smoke on the altar . . . (Leviticus 4:33-35).
This level of dense description exists for each type and subtype of sacrifice in this Torah portion. No wonder some people feel that their eyes cloud over and burn from the smokiness of these explanations.
And yet, the very first few words of the parashah give us a hint that may clear away this smoke and provide a clear understanding of exactly why these detailed accounts may contain an important message.
The opening words of Vayikra state: "The Eternal One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them . . . " (1:1-2). What follows are all of the explanations of the sacrifices we have been discussing.
The question that begs to be answered here is, why in the world did God tell Moses to explain all of this minute detail to the whole population? After all, these are really just instructions to the kohanim, the priests. Why didn't God simply command Moses just to teach them how to conduct this ritual? Why bother, confuse, and even bore everyone else (and us, the future readers of the Torah)?
One possible answer to these questions is that the great detail actually exists to blow away the smoke and confusion of the sacrifices. For, if only the priests knew what happened during the rituals, not only would the general population be behind a screen of smoke, but they also would be in total darkness. The Torah ensures that Judaism is not a secret religion run by priests who know more "truth" than anyone else. It is, instead, open and accessible. All one has to do is pay attention and learn in order to know fully how to be a Jew – even if one isn't a priest in the old days (or a rabbi in modern times)!
So, Vayikra, with all its laborious detail, comes to remind us what we already learned in Exodus (19:6). Namely, we are a ". . . kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Our tradition is not locked away in secure vaults, closed books, or behind locked doors. It is open and transparent.
Would that this were the case in the rest of our lives – in government, in communal organizations, in synagogues, and in families!
Robert Tornberg, RJE, is a Jewish educator with nearly forty years of experience in synagogue schools, day schools, and as the Education Director of DeLeT at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Currently completing the dissertation for his Ph.D. in educational administration and program evaluation, he plans to develop an independent consulting practice focusing on program evaluation and professional development for Jewish schools, synagogues, and other organizations.
How do we bring k'dushah, "holiness," into our lives and into our world? The entire Book of Levitcus challenges us with this question, and it is through this lens we must view this portion. As we learned above, this question is not reserved for our leaders, but rather it is a challenge directed to each of us.
The sacrificial system of yesterday is not the only set of rituals that today have lost their sacred meanings. While we yearn for holiness in our lives many of us struggle to find it.
Maimonides suggests that perhaps these primitive rituals reflected the time in which they were given. In other words, the Torah offers these animal and meal offerings to humanity as an intermediary step between the physical world of idolatry that our ancestors came from and the world of ideas where our tradition sought to arrive.
We live in a world that is increasingly less physical and more virtual. (For example, our ideas, once written with paper and ink, are now read from dots that appear on a screen.) It is an era in which what is holy seems less and less real.
The korbanot, "sacrifices," that make up the Torah's sacrificial system perhaps gave our ancestors the opportunity to feel to close to the Divine. And for those who had committed a chet, a "sin," the sacrifice may have offered a process to help them find their way back to feeling closer to God again. The root of the word korban means "to get close"; the word chet is related to a term that means "to miss the mark," as an archer might miss a bull's-eye. By extension, it can refer to anything that distances one from others, from God, and from one's "true" self. Today, there are lots of distractions that can create distance, but do we have real ways that enable us to get closer?
This week's Torah portion reflects the distance we have traveled from a physical way of dealing with our failings to a more abstract process. As we reread the text, may it guide us to find meaningful ways in our lives to express ourselves and draw closer to the holiness we seek in our lives.
Rabbi Michael Pincus is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, Connecticut.
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 757–778; Revised Edition, pp. 658–681;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 569–592