PARSHAT VAYIKRA – SHABBAT HaCHODESH

FRIDAY, March 16th

“Giving up the Goat”

This week, as we begin reading the book of Vayikra, we move from the excitement and creativity of building the Mishkan, to the day-to-day nitty-gritty details of offering sacrifices.  For many people today, living, as most of us do, far removed from a culture of raising and slaughtering farm animals, much less sacrificing them to God, it can be difficult to understand the meaning and importance of the sacrifices.  Many people feel the modes of connecting with God that we use today–prayer, meditation, study–are spiritually and morally superior to offering animal sacrifices.  If you feel that way, you’re in good company.  No less an authority than the Rambam (Maimonides) was inclined to agree with you, seeing the sacrificial system as a concession to the human need for a tangible means of connecting with God.  Others, such as the Ramban (Nachmanides), famously disagree, and argue that the Mishkan, and the sacrifices, were something intrinsically valuable, and desired by God.

Whichever side of this debate we sympathize with, we are left with the question of what we can learn from studying the sacrifices, living as we do without a temple, and without the opportunity to offer animal sacrifices, even if we wanted to.

One thing to note about the sacrifices is their size. In economic terms, giving up a goat is no small matter.  A one-year old male goat can weigh 100 lbs. or more, enough meat for literally hundreds of meals.  Making that kind of a gift is something even a relatively wealthy person would probably feel the impact of.  Moreover, the Torah requires that someone making an offering press their hands down on the animal before it is sacrificed, bringing them into physical contact with the animal.  Thus offering a gift to God, whether in atonement for a sin, out of gratitude for blessings we have received, or simply as an expression of piety is not something to be kept at arm’s length.  Someone offering an animal sacrifice would literally feel the impact of their gift in their own body.

With the loss of temple and its sacrifices, we may have moved towards a more sophisticated mode of worship through prayer and meditation, but in doing so it has become easier for us to let ourselves off the hook.  Prayer doesn’t force me to give up anything in the way sacrifice does.

When we pray, it’s all to easy to simply recite the words without actually feeling their impact on our heart and soul. How would our prayers be different if instead, we put the full weight of our intention behind every word, just as we would put our full physical weight onto an animal before offering it in the temple?

If our observance is to be more than just going through the motions, we ought to feel its impact, both in ways that feel good, and in ways that might not be so comfortable.  May we be blessed to feel the joy of real sacrifice, to feel the impact of the mitzvot we perform, and to be changed for the better by the experience.