This week’s Torah portion is Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26).
We often teach and are taught that as long as there was a Temple in Jerusalem there was one, and only one, acceptable way of communicating with God: animal sacrifice. We often teach that today, in the absence of a Temple, we have developed many ways of communicating with God. These ways include oral prayer, written prayer, meditation, song, dance and art.
The topic of many prayers is the hope that there will one day be a Temple in Jerusalem, which leads to this question: Is it better to have one set path to communicate with God or the many, more personalized, paths that present themselves to Jews today?
At first glance, this Torah portion seems to be foundational to a sacrificial approach to communicating with God. There is a reason, after all, that this book is often referred to as Torat Kohanim, the Instructions of the Priests. Their primary duties involved making sure that each sacrifice prescribed in the Torah was given at the correct time and in the proper fashion. In our portion’s case we have instructions for two types of general offerings, called olah and mincha, followed by offerings for well-being and offerings to atone for various types of accidental transgressions. The process involved in the preparation and presentation of each sacrifice to God is presented meticulously and leaves very little room for creativity on the part of the priests.
A closer look at this portion reveals that a certain amount of variety is welcomed, even encouraged.
Take the olah, or burnt sacrifice; this can be a cattle, sheep, goats, or birds (chapter 1, verse 2).
The mincha is a sacrifice of grains and not animals (chapter 2, verse 1).
The rabbis of the Mishna, about 2,000 years ago, were fascinated by the variety of options given to fulfill these sacrifices. Their most common explanation was that God was aware that in real life the people of Israel would fall into different economic classes and that not everyone would be able to afford a bull. God gave us sacrifices for all economic classes so that every member of the Children of Israel would have equal access to sacrificial communications.
This is a great moment to pause and ask yourself, or your family, a question: Are the rabbis correct, that the variety of sacrifices was all about economic classes, or do you think other lessons could be learned from these passages?
The above lesson about creating access to God for every Jew, no matter what that Jew’s class happens to be, is a good one. However, I also see a deeper meaning in the text. Nothing in the text indicates that there is any difference in importance between these different olah animals; the bull sends the same message to God as the dove; further, the grain sends nearly the same message to God as those animal sacrifices.
In Tractate Menachot of the Mishna, a book that focuses heavily on sacrificial minutiae, the rabbis consider the question of the olah sacrifice options. They conclude by saying, “Whether one does a little or does a lot, what matters is one’s intent is directed to God.”
I take the above passage to mean that our text can be read in two ways. The simple meaning is that God had the foresight to make sure Jews of every economic class could worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. However, I also see a deeper meaning:
As long as our intentions are directed towards God then there are unlimited pathways to making that personal, meaningful, connection with Hashem.
Two more questions:
1. What are your favorite ways to communicate with God? What makes them effective for you?
2. What do you prefer in your communications with God – a predictable system of set rituals or a more free form system of creativity? n
Eitan Gutin is the director of Lifelong Learning at Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington.