Leviticus 1:1 – 5:2
Open the book VaYikra, and enter the world of sacrificial Judaism. This is the priestly book, the book of the korbonot – the offerings through which Israel drew closer to God. According to tradition, young Jewish students begin their studies here, in the middle of the Torah, rather than with “In the Beginning…”
Yet we live in a world where the sacrificial cult has not existed for almost 2000 years. Many Jews today are uncomfortable with the idea of offering sacrifices, considering the practice barbaric. The Reform movement completely excised the Musaf service, which contains prayers for the restoration of the Temple and the sacrificial cult, from the Reform Siddur (prayer book), and removed sacrificial language from the R’tzei prayer (which in the original form asks God to accept both our worship and our fire offerings).
Of all of the books of Torah, this one seems the farthest removed from our lives today – at least on the surface. As one of my teachers once quipped, “Hey, when it comes to Leviticus we need all the help we can get!”
This is where we start our studies?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the great Orthodox thinkers of the 20th Century wrote: “The precept of sacrifice is a central motif in Judaism. To live in accord with God’s word is identical with living a sacrificial life. To act morally is synonymous with sacrificial action.” (Chumash Mesoras HaRav – Lev. 1:2). While Judaism condemns human sacrifice as murder, Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that on a spiritual level we need to offer everything we are to God. Therefore, prayer is properly understood as a form of sacrifice. This makes Jewish spirituality a paradox: only by negating our egos, our senses of self, can we reach our fullest potential and fulfillment.
Equating prayer with sacrifice is an idea I find both challenging and compelling. Prayer as sacrifice means asking not for what we want, but rather, for what God needs. It means taking our own desires and sublimating them to God’s will.
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:15)
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras