Divine communication

By Rabbi Mordecai Miller

“Animal Sacrifice!”  Not exactly a concept that excites modern sensibilities in Western society.  Yet this is what confronts us every year as we begin the third book of the Torah, Vayikra or Leviticus.

Setting aside our aversions to the notion for the moment; perhaps, in allowing the parsha to speak for itself, we can discover some fundamental, if not deep, concepts running through it.  Permit me, if you will, to share some basic ideas, in the hopes of opening the door a wee crack to seeing why such a practice occupied such an important place in the religious life of Israel.

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I’ll enumerate:

1. When it comes to sacrifices, there are two basic categories: public (brought on behalf of the entire community, and personal (where an individual brings an offering for a personal reason).

2. Vayikra’ opens with a list of the basic kinds of personal offerings.

• The Olah related to the word for “going up” and sometimes translated as “Elevation Offering”; sometimes translated as “Whole Offering” or “Burnt Offering” because every part of the animal was burned – some on the altar and some on a pyre designated for the purpose.  However, the skin of animal went to the priest who performed the service.  The Torah doesn’t mention the purpose of this sacrifice; Tradition informs us that it is an atonement for the failure to perform a Positive Commandment.

• The Mincha (Gift Offering)  This always refers to an offering consisting of flour, oil and frankincense.  In the context of our parsha, it appears to be brought by someone who couldn’t afford to bring an animal sacrifice.

• Sh’lamim (Peace Offerings) These kinds of offering appear to be an expression of praise or thanks.  We are taught that they were called Sh’lamim because it was shared with the altar, the priest and the family who brought the offering, so there was no jealousy between them.  These offerings bear a relationship to the Todah or “Thanksgiving” Offering mentioned elsewhere.

• Chat’at or “Sin Offering” brought to express a sincere desire of the person to seek Divine forgiveness.  If the peson sinned intentionally, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to bring a chatat.  The torah mentions various situations which mandate a chatat, depending on the individual’s position in the society.  For example, a king would bring a certain type of animal.  Likewise a High Priest or the Great Sanhedrin would have their own unique rituals.

There were other offerings that might be brought by an individual; each with their unique rules and each serving a specific purpose.

3. Behind all these offerings lay the desire to be able to maintain a close relationship with the Creator.

If we examine those elements that go into developing and maintaining our own close relationships we can see that there are similarities.  Just as it was important to be conscious of pro-active ways in which to respond to God—the positive mitzvot—so in maintaining intimate relationships with others it’s very important to be responsive to the their needs that require us to take some kind of positive action.  This would correspond to the Olah.  Likewise it is far more important than many realize, to take the time to express our appreciation to others; especially for many everyday tasks they perform to make our lives more pleasurable.  The Sh’lamim would represent this element.  And, of course, there are times when we may, in a moment of anger or weakness, say or do something to that person which may hurt them in some way.  The chatat offers the individual such an opportunity to sincerely express regret.

Despite the fact that animal sacrifices are no longer practiced, the social dynamics that they reflect are as relevant today as ever.  Studying them in detail can give us a better idea of what it takes to nurture close relationships…not just communicating with the Divine, but a divine way to communicate.