“Oh no not VaYikra, not Leviticus! Do we have to read all those laws that are meaningless to us in this day and age? Please can we skip this part?” That is what many Jews feel about the book that we started this week. I have heard of congregations that change the reading schedule so that these Parshiyot (portions) are read in the summer when fewer people show up for shul. But I think that is missing the mark. There is depth and elevation in the 3rd book of Torah, called VaYikra as pointed out by the first portion in the book.
The book, ויקרא (VaYikra) is called Leviticus because it has so many discussions of life surrounding the Temple and it’s pre-incarnation, the Ohel Moed including many types of sacrifice. How does that relate to us today? After all, we have no Temple, we make no sacrifices and to be perfectly honest we don’t want to make any, certainly not the kind made thousands of years ago. We might take the philosopher’s view that with every step of the growth of our people G was weaning us away from the practice of sacrifice as it was known in those days.
But growth includes learning to comprehend the ancient ways with a deeper understanding in the light of our modern life. Torah is not a dried out dead leaf of a tree growing through many winters. Torah is Garden in which we play and grow and within the Garden are trees of life and knowledge, for us to climb joyfully and play in the branches. The Garden is a living growing organism for which there is meaning in every part. And we are living growing organisms who learn from the tests and lessons of life by means of our Garden. Let us look more deeply, let us climb higher in our insight than the surface perception of the slaughter of animals, the baking of unleavened bread and the sprinkling of blood.
There is a British TV show called: “Kill it, Cook it and Eat it.” As the show’s name explicitly states, people are required to kill (and to butcher), cook and eat an animal. There is a surprisingly interesting component, which is the moral choices that people make, that comes through. But I do not speak of that here. There is one moment in one scene that I wish to address. A woman teetering on the edge between vegetarian and meat eater kills a wild animal. The gamekeeper comes forward and takes out the internal organs which must be removed quickly if the animal is going to be eaten. Then, he shocks the woman with an ancient hunters’ tradition. He “bloods her” which means that he rubs his bloody hands on her face. She handles it well, all things considered.
Why do I mention this seemingly barbaric custom?
Let us go back to the sacrifices of old.
There is a process that needs to be comprehended on a deeper level.
The animal was slaughtered very quickly with one slice across its throat. Death was instantaneous. The animal was skinned and butchered. The blood was placed on the corners of the altar. The fire was built up and the head and hooves and the ‘fat’ which includes the internal organs, were burnt. This was the symbolic portion for G. The rest of the meat, in most cases, was eaten in a communal meal or given to the Kohanim, those in charge of performing Temple ritual, for their portion.
Blood removed is the symbol of life and death. What is left is meat. Many tribal folk refer to hunting as ‘making meat.’ In ancient times that was the purpose of removing the blood of the animal in Jewish sacrifice. It is recognition that this was once a living breathing animal. We have become part of the process of life and death on this planet.
There was also a meal offering which was oven baked, deep or shallow pan cooked. Again part of the meal was eaten while part was burned in a symbolic sharing with G. Meal offerings were basically Matzah and olive oil.
If one puts together the offerings and the manner in which they were prepared, then the word for sacrifice in Hebrew emanates a message of meaning that rings true today. We bring meat and bread together and sit in higher consciousness sharing a meal with other members of the tribe, including the ritual leaders the Kohanim and with our G. The word in Hebrew that we translate as sacrifice or offering is קורבן (Korban) which means to bring close. The Korbanot were meals of togetherness, spiritual closeness; to each other, to the animal that we have killed, cooked and are consuming together and with the One Whole Source of all life, the Holy Source of all Being. We bring into a type of oneness, our tribe and tribal functionaries. We come into oneness with the animal that we are consuming. We did not buy the meat; we ‘made meat.’ And we come closer to G by sharing symbolically a meal with the source of all creation and the Wholly Oneness of all life.
Sacrifice seems strange to us today, but Korban, the coming closer together with each other, with all life and with the Source of Life, that understanding of Korban reaches us at our Core.