D’var Torah by Rabbi Josef Davidson: Creating community


Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.


With this week’s Torah portion the third book of the Torah, Vayikra (“[God] called [to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting]…”), is read. Vayikra is also called Torat Cohanim in Hebrew, which corresponds to the name most commonly known, “Leviticus.” As these latter names imply, much of the book is concerned with the levitical or priestly vocation, a handbook for the priests in conducting the offerings and other priestly functions, such as the diagnosis and treatment of disease and ritual impurity. In the latter part of the book is the famous “Holiness Code” in which is written the Golden Rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The first portion in Vayikra is also called Vayikra, the first significant word in the book and in this week’s parashah. This first six chapters and part of next week’s Torah portion as well are concerned with five different types of korban(offering or sacrifice; coming from a word that means “to draw near, to be closer”). They are the olah (the burnt offering), the minhah (meal offering), the zevah shelamim (offering of well-being), the hattat (unintentional sin offering) and the asham (intentional guilt offering). Each serves a distinct purpose but all serve to draw the person(s) bringing the offering closer to God and to the community.

These five offerings were brought by individuals, tribal chieftains, priests and the entire community, depending upon the nature of the offering and the purpose for bringing it. They were only part of the sacrificial rites administered by the priests. There were also daily offerings, morning and afternoon, as well as additional offerings on Sabbaths, holy days and new months. In addition there were three tithes which people brought to the priests. Many of these offerings were intended to provide compensation for the priests, who were not given any real or physical property in the division of the Promised Land of Canaan/Israel. Others were also shared with those bringing them. Whatever the offering, the intent was to provide a means of communion with God and the community.

When the Temple was destroyed, one of the major crises was the loss of this means of communion with God and the community.  How might Jews now achieve this level of spirituality and closeness? Without the offering of property, what might they service might they offer?

For the daily and additional offerings, the service of the heart, prayer, was substituted for the service of the korbanot (offerings, sacrifices). Instead of twice daily korbanot, twice-daily prayer services were composed and a third added to correspond with the injunction to “repeat these words day and night” read in the Shema twice daily. Instead of the additional korban for the Shabbat, holy days and new months, a musaf (additional) prayer was added to the liturgy of those mornings.

The five offerings described in this week’s Torah portion touched people in a most intimate manner.  What would substitute for them?  Here, too, the rabbis had an answer. In Avot DeRabbi Natan 11a, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai instructed his pupil, Rabbi Joshua, “There is another way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed.  We must now gain atonement through deeds of loving-kindness.  For it is written, ‘Loving-kindness I desire, not sacrifice.’ (Hosea 6:6)” Elsewhere (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 49b), Rabbi Elazar quoted Proverbs 21:3, “Doing tzedakah (charity) and justice is more acceptable to the Eternal than sacrifice.”

In these two statements is the key to obtaining communion with God and one’s fellow human beings in a manner that is complementary to prayer. Performing deeds of loving-kindness, doing what is right in helping to support the community and those less fortunate, and implementing justice in all facets of life are three related means by which to achieve the closeness once obtained solely through the sacrificial rites. Such a person will naturally draw others close to him/her and will feel God’s Presence in his/her life. Human beings are, after all, created in the Divine Image and Likeness. Therefore, performing deeds of loving-kindness, charity and justice are akin to honoring God in Whose Image all are created. Bringing other human beings closer also brings God closer.

The sacrificial rites described in this week’s Torah portion served a vital role in building community and communion.  They also facilitated awareness of the feelings one has and the impact one has upon others. God was to be blessed in times of plenty and blessing as well as in times of trouble and doubt, when one fulfilled one’s purpose and when one missed the mark, either unintentionally or purposefully. The bringing of an offering was an opportunity for the fortunate to share their good fortune and an opportunity for those who felt guilty, ashamed or sinful to reenter the good graces of the community and God. Though the offerings are no longer required, human beings still need to be able to fulfill these needs. Today that can be accomplished through prayer, deeds of loving-kindness, tzedakah, doing what is right and not out of love, as the word “charity” implies, and justice. These are offerings which are always acceptable.

Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.