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Torah Commentary
Vayikra (March 24, 2012)

Dr. Mark Weisstuch, Administrative Vice President

THE PORTION OF VAYIKRA — and by expansion, the entire Book of Leviticus (in Hebrew, also Vayikra) for which it serves as the opening chapters — functions as a lengthy, detailed answer to two tacit, reciprocal questions: How do we reach out to God, and how do we endow that communion with the requisite holiness?

This portion delineates the complex architecture of the sacrificial protocol. In language that is methodical, uninflected and sublime in its precision, we are given a description of the five principal categories of sacrifices: the olah or “burnt offering;” the minchah or “meal offering;” the zevach shlamim or “sacrifice of well-being;” the chatat or “sin offering;” and the asham or “penalty offering.” Reading Vayikra, portion and book, reinforces the fact that sacrificial rites constituted the core of Israelite religious worship from the time of the Exodus from Egypt through the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.

Despite its primitive associations of homage to the gods or “food for the gods,” the essence of sacrifice is intimacy with the Divine. At the heart of the mechanism of the sacrificial act is a striving for human-Divine union. It often has been noted that the root of the Hebrew word for “sacrifice” — korban — is k-r-v — “to come close.” The act of sacrifice, with all its intricate, punctilious design, nay, because of its intricate, punctilious design, bespeaks an esoteric, mystical phenomenon through which one achieves a spiritual connectedness, a unio mystico. The place itself where sacrifice is offered becomes what some have referred to as a “thin place,” a locale where the distance between earth and heaven is foreshortened and the transcendent is made immanent.

In the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction, when the Rabbis had perforce to reinvent Jewish practice, prayer supplanted sacrifice as the primary means of communication with the Divine. The idea of sacrifice and its fundamental precepts persisted with prayer and liturgy adopting the structure of the sacrificial edifice (the division of prayer into services in the morning, afternoon and evening and the inclusion of a musaf prayer on the Sabbath and festivals) and the liturgy including many references to specific sacrifices and sacrificial practices. The actual became virtual; what had been fact was transmuted to metaphor. Now instead of blood, entrails and burning flesh, words are used as the medium of communication.

But the purpose of prayer remained the same — to provide accessibility to the divine, to open a pathway for relationship. In fact, the human-God axis of interaction that provided “connectedness” in the sacrificial system can best be understood by the modern sensibility in terms of “relationship.” Prayer is the mechanism through which we might achieve the Buberian ideal of the I-Thou symbiosis.

The reading of Vayikra today poses a profound challenge for contemporary liberal Jews. The disquisition on sacrifice is alien and opaque, to be sure, and so is its post-Destruction corollary: prayer. For many, the engagement with prayer ends with, “Please rise and turn to page 348.” The idea of a dialogue with the Divine seems strained and strange. Prayer is reduced to plea bargaining with God or the submission of a wish list, and when our petitions are not “answered,” we feel the hollowness of a monologue. The idiom and choreography of prayer is unfamiliar, even threatening.

Thus the challenge of Vayikra — How can we engage in prayer that is a transformative encounter with the Divine?

* * * * *

The idea of prayer is based upon the assumption of man’s ability to accost God, to lay our hopes, sorrows and wishes before Him. But this assumption is not an awareness of a particular ability with which we are endowed. We do not feel that we possess a magic power of speaking to the Infinite; we merely witness the wonder of prayer, the wonder of man addressing himself to the Eternal. Contact with Him is not our achievement. It is a gift, coming to us from on high like a meteor, rather than rising up like a rocket. Before the words of prayer come to the lips, the mind must believe in God’s willingness to draw near to us, and in our ability to clear the path for His approach. Such belief is the idea that leads us toward prayer.

— Abraham Joshua Heschel, Between God and Man:
An Interpretation of Judaism
, pp. 199-200

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