By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
This week’s Torah parsha, Vayikra, is the first parsha in the Book of Leviticus, known formally as ‘Torat Kohanim’ (Instructions for the Priests) (1). The title, Vayikra, defines the entire Book of Leviticus: “and He called”.
We have just completed reading the thrilling and dramatic story of the Book of Exodus, which captivated our imagination like an award winning action movie of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. We cheered when God performed his miracles and cringed with delight as He imposed the ten heinous plagues on the stubborn Pharaoh of Egypt and all of his people. We marveled at the parting of the Red Sea to bring the Israelites to freedom on dry land and empathized with the feelings of ‘shock and awe’, which the Children of Israel experienced as God delivered the Ten Commandments. We recoiled in horror and fear for the Israelites, of the possible repercussions for creating the ‘golden calf’ and rejoiced at the culmination of the Book of Exodus, with the construction of the exquisite Sanctuary and the splendor of the attire of the Kohanim.
With few exceptions, the book of Leviticus lacks the theatrics and suspense of the chapters of Exodus. The contents of Leviticus are diverse but unified by the theme of ‘Holiness’. An initial perusal of parsha Vayikra might lead the reader to perceive that God had requested from Moses that the Israelites sacrifice to Him a well-seasoned barbeque. This week’s parsha begins with God calling to Moses and saying: “Talk to the Israelites and tell them to choose their offerings from the herd or flock; place salt on it and bring it to the entrance of the ‘Tent of Meeting’ (2).
However, the rationale for Vayikra is somewhat clarified upon learning that the root of the Hebrew word ‘korban’ (sacrifice) is defined as ‘draw near’. In effect the ‘korban’ was an act of homage and proof of one’s love for God (3).
There are five ‘korbanot’ detailed in parsha Vayikra. First is the ‘Olah’, a burnt offering. The purpose of this sacrifice was to remove the guilt of sinful thoughts and intentions, even if these thoughts or intentions were never executed. The second ‘korban’ was ‘Minechah’, a meal offering. The objective of the ‘Minechah’ is the same as the ‘Olah’, created specifically for those families who were unable to afford an animal to be brought to the entrance of the Tabernacle. The ‘Shelamin’, peace offering, was not designed to atone for a sin, but rather to express gratitude to God for all of His gifts and the pleasures which He brought into the lives of the Israelites (4).
The last two ‘korbanot’ were ‘Chatah’, a sin offering, which was required for negative acts committed unintentionally; and ‘Ashem’, a guilt sacrifice. Typically, this last ‘korban’ was required for any individual who was involved in a ‘white collar’ crime (e.g. deceit through robbery or fraud). In addition to surrendering an animal to the kohanim, the perpetrator had to ensure monetary restitution to the victim (5).
The significance of parsha Vayikra in our world is the opportunity and challenge to become closer to God, through reflection and introspection of our deeds and actions towards others. The salt which God required on each animal sacrifice was a metaphor for exceptional attempts to create an ideal community, which can provide a sense of God’s presence in our lives (6).
(1) Mishnah Megillot 1:5
(2) Leviticus (1:1-3)
(3) The Torah: A Modern Commentary
(4) Bar University (Torah Study Center) Ramat-Gan,Israel
(6) American Jewish World Service (Vayikra), NY, NY