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Torah Commentary
Vayikra (April 1, 2017)

Rabbinic Intern Tarlan Rabizadeh

There’s a movie called “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” It’s about a first-generation American woman from a Greek family who ends up falling in love with a non-Greek man and must come to terms with her heritage and clashing identities. Tula’s life story reminds me of my own.

My family might not roast lamb on a spit in the front yard, as in the film, but like the ancient Israelites in this week’s parashah, I grew up in a family where we do kaparot...sacrifices.

Yes, Kapara. Sacrificing chickens is something that is customary in My Big Fat Persian Family. I have vivid childhood memories of having a chicken swung above my head by a rabbi in the backyard of my grandparent’s house. Kaparot would be done when we bought a new house or if someone in the family was very sick. Afterwards, the chicken would be killed, cooked and given to the poor as a charity offering.

As a child, I don’t think I got it...even though I remember every step of the process so clearly. The thing is, as soon as I was old enough to understand that we were killing innocent animals, as soon as someone explained to me what was going to happen with the chicken, I never participated in it again. I refused to. From then on, my grandmother would use a picture of me, and the chicken would be swung around that.

Like Tula, I grew up straddling two worlds. At my Jewish day school I was taught American Jewish values. At home, I was taught Persian Jewish values. And at times, those values were in conflict.

There was the time I asked my grandmother what she thought I should be when I grew up. She responded supportively in Farsi, “Harchee mechai beshee, bosho. Vaghadr doktor bosho.” In English: “Whatever you want to become, become...Only, make sure you become a doctor.” But I saw a different future for myself. I wanted to become a rabbi. With that decision came a lot of sacrifices, and this week’s Torah portion is all about sacrifices.

The book of וַיִּקְרָא (Vayikra) in English means: “and He Called.” God calls onto Moses and relays the five different kinds of sacrifices, or קָרְבָּנוֹת (korbanot) to be offered in the Sanctuary. They are the olah, burnt offering; the minchah, meal offering; the zevach sh’lamim, sacrifice of well-being; the chatat, sin offering; and the asham, guilt offering.

The manner in which each offering is made is described in excruciating detail. For instance, in the first case of the burnt offering, korban olah, it is to be a sheep, goat or bull without blemish, or a turtledove or pigeon. The person offering the sacrifice is to place a hand upon its head. The animal is then to be slaughtered, and the priests are to pour its blood against the sides of the altar. In the case of a sheep, goat or bull, the animal then is to be cut up into sections and burned on the altar. If the sacrifice is a turtledove or pigeon, its head is to be removed and the blood is to be poured against the sides of the altar; it is to be torn open by its wings and placed upon the altar to be consumed by the fire. Finally, the High Priests, the Kohanim, were permitted to eat the remains of the sacrificial offering.

Today, as constituents of the 21st century, this ritual can seem primitive, violently disturbing and morally repugnant. But for the ancient Israelites, who based their entire livelihood on the yields of farming and livestock, giving up some of their most prized possessions — the best of their livestock — as a means of worshiping God, was a sacrifice indeed. In fact, in Hebrew, the word for sacrifice, קרבן (korban), shares the same root letters for the word קרוב (karov), which means to “draw near.” Therefore, according to our tradition, a sacrifice is a worshiper’s attempt to come closer and unite with God.

If we think about the meaning of the word “sacrifice,” our modern definition is not that far off from the ancient Israelites’. Sacrifice means giving up something for the sake of a greater value. This can mean giving up a vacation to make more money or sacrificing luxuries to educate our children.

At the same time, the unsettling details included in this ancient ritual act should not be overlooked either. According to the 13th century sage Nachmonides, sacrifice is supposed to be disturbing, and it is supposed to hit a nerve. He explains that when the ancient Israelites would witness the undertaking of a sacrifice as a means of atonement for their sin, they would come to realize, “that it would have been fitting for his own blood to be spilled and his own body burnt were it not for the grace of the Creator.” In other words, by witnessing the animal go through this horrible process, we are shaken to our core so that we think twice before participating in another sin ever again. Also, the fragility and sacredness of life will be awakened in us, prompting us to conduct our time with a sense of responsibility toward living a meaningful life — a life on which we might be able to look back and be proud. After all, kaparot also are performed in anticipation of Yom Kippur by many traditional Jews to this day. Because Yom Kippur is a holy day where we simulate death, many wear white, we fast, we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. Death can jolt us to live.

Perhaps this is why for centuries Jewish children traditionally began their Torah studies with the book of Vayikra. This choice was justified by the contention that pure young children should first learn about the sacrifices which were brought in purity. After all, learning the lesson of sacrifice at a young age enables us to see our lives in a new way — to think about all the possibilities of how we want to live our future, from the beginning of our time on earth.

Whether you are disturbed by the details of the portion or have participated in the modern-day rendition of kaparot, the point is that making sacrifices is difficult. At the same time, to get closer to our goal, we need to give up something. That is the message of Vayikra, which literally means a calling; it is a reminder to all of us to question the meaning of sacrifice in our lives today…to ask ourselves, what am I sacrificing to become closer to God?...to bring meaning to my own life and to the lives of those around me? Am I living the life that I want to be living?

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