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Vayikra

March 9, 2014

We are at the very beginning of Leviticus and, I have to confess, it is my least favorite book of the Torah.  Maybe because I am not that fond of rules.  And this book is chock full of rules, many of which are entirely irrelevant to our modern lives.  At the end of Exodus we learn of the sanctuary being erected; a place built by human hands in which the divine presence would abide.  As one scholar put it, the tent of meeting between man and G-d.  I like that idea, but then we move into Leviticus and although G-d has entered our sanctuary, we must be schooled in the rules of the place.  But as with everything in the Torah, if you read and think, read and think, you can find a principle or an idea that is completely relevant to us. 

This parsha is all about sacrifice, in the most detailed and gruesome way.  It is about the dissection of animals in specific ways, about the uses of certain parts of the body, about what to burn and how, about what to use and in what order; cows, bulls and birds all suffer much the same fate. 

As an aside, I find it odd and ironic that the “peace” offering begins with the dispersal of blood on the altar.  I suppose all peace comes as a result of struggle or conflict, if I was trying hard to make sense of it.  An additional bit of oddity for me is the caste like separation, in the world of physical sacrifice, of the gadol kohanim  or high priests, the kohanim, the regular priests, and the rest of us.  But reflections on caste and culture are for another d’var.

Most important, for me, was the idea of sacrifice.  Life is full of sacrifice, isn’t it?  In so many large and small ways.  We sacrifice for our children; we sacrifice for our parents and all those we love.  Sometimes with money, sometimes with time and sometimes just in putting our own feelings to the side.  I remember all the Saturdays that I gave up taking my dad to the Winn Dixie.  A trip for 10 items would take hours.  And my life is so busy that I had to consciously tell myself, no, this is more important.  Now that he is gone I of course am glad of the sacrifice of time.  I think of all the times I didn’t shop for myself because my son needed something – I don’t think there is a mother in the world who hasn’t experienced that; unless you are so wealthy that it doesn’t matter.

Physical sacrifice, the dissecting, burning, eating of animals to show our faith or our belief in G-D is obviously not relevant to us today.  Leviticus is downright gory in its attention to detail so I sort of skipped over parts of it.

The thing that caught my eye about the sacrifices was the bit that says no “meal” offering may have leavening or sweetener but only salt.  I had to do some reading about this and in the end I found one explanation that spoke to me.  I am a cook so this explanation is something that I could understand and relate to.  It was that leavening changes the actual nature of the thing you put it in, causes it to rise and become something different.  Sweetener also changes the basic nature of the food by making it into something different.  A biscuit dough becomes a shortcake when you add sugar for example.  But salt, the one permitted, or even required item, only enhances the true nature of what it is incorporated into.  Chemists will not necessarily agree about this – look at a good vinaigrette!  Nevertheless, it is an explanation I can understand, one I can work with.

There are many explanations by folks much more scholarly than I about why sacrifice at all.  Is it because life is full of sin, that as imperfect beings we cannot help but sin?  If so, think about the explanation of leavening and sweetener.  When we apologize or atone perfectly, we do not say “but” or “I should have” or “I know”.  We say we are sorry without adding or sweetening.  One of the hardest things in life to do is to make amends to someone without expectation of how it will be received.  It is our nature to “sweeten” or minimize whatever wrong we have done, or to inflate our importance or goodness in order to deflate the bad.  So maybe it is that sacrifice is to be done without arrogance or self-promotion.  Maybe sacrifice is to be done without making ourselves “sweeter”.  All the salt should do is magnify to truthfulness and selflessness of the sacrifice itself.  It speaks for itself, as food does with a little salt, no need for additional frou frou as my husband would say, tossing the garnish aside.

This idea of sacrifice is the only one that I find palatable as I do not understand or accept the concept of a punishing or demanding G-d, although back in the day our G-d certainly was demanding and there are moments when I think perhaps we, as a people, a tribe, could use a bit more pushing.  Be that as it may, my personal G-d, the one I have a relationship with, would not demand of me what was demanded of Abraham as a test of faith, would not demand that I kill another living thing to proof my worth or faith.  So I have to take it all as a metaphor.

What is good in the world is the fact that we do choose to make sacrifices for the good of those we love, for the good of the earth, for the good of the community, for the good of each other.  We refrain from our worst behaviors because the primal idea of sacrifice has become entrenched in our social mores.  But we refrain from selfish behaviors because the primal idea of sacrifice has become entrenched in our hearts.  We give the young and old food before we serve ourselves; not because our society says so, but because we know it is right.  People die every day rescuing their children because it is impossible not to act in that way – every parent knows they would give their own life to save the life of their child.  Not because society says it should be so but because it is fundamental to us as sentient beings.

So life is full of sacrifice, great and small; and this Torah portion was given to me today because I needed to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice and selfishness.  Self-centeredness and selflessness.  I needed to be reminded that somewhere, every moment, someone’s life is much harder, more difficult and more painful than mine.  Those sacrifices that we make because they are primal, without thinking, are the part of us that is made in the divine image.  Those sacrifices we choose to make are because we are imperfectly human and wish to come more closely to the divine.

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