Sacrifice can take on many different meanings. In a religious sense it means “an offering to honor or appease a god, especially of a ritually slaughtered animal or person”. If one looks at this week’s parshah in a literal sense, this quoted dictionary reference can describe what is going on in Vayikra. I would hope that we have evolved from the descriptions and examples given in this week’s parshah, but given the condition the world is in, I am not quite sure we have come to understand that the Torah is more symbolic than literal and even though I think and hope we will never go back to physically slaughtering animals to satisfy our desire to please G-d, I have no wish to enter into a rationalization of biblical morality. I would rather take away from this parshah, the mitzvah of giving what you can give depending on your financial situation that is made very clear in the Sixth and Seventh aliyahs as a commandment that we should all strive to accomplish.
Another definition of sacrifice that I think more aptly describes what we should strive to meet is “a giving up of something valuable or important for somebody or something else considered to be of more value or importance”.
I will now ask you a question that I know is rhetorical but in the spirit of wanting to know where you stand, which definition best fits this week’s Torah portion? What follows is mine.
You like it when I use examples taken from my own experiences so, with your indulgence, I will repeat something I said when I gave a devar Torah about this week’s pashah.
“Of course animal sacrifice is no longer accepted and some say that it is prayer that is offered as its substitute. But is this what sacrifice should be about. Prayer gives tribute to our creator but is this the way sacrifice should be offered in today’s world?
People tend to donate things only when they no longer need them. Old, rickety furniture and used clothing are the typical stuff for donations. The Torah, however, teaches us to do a mitzvah with heart and soul. If we treat the poor with empathy, we would not give them things of lesser quality than we want for ourselves. But the Torah goes beyond that, and says that we should give the poor even better than what we ourselves have. This is because we put all our energy and resources into the things that we truly love. Tzedakah (charity) is a mitzvah, and when a person loves doing mitzvot, he will invest more in the mitzvah than in his ordinary needs.
The following took place when I was asked to step into the leadership role for the Shul. I am starting my second term as president of the JJC and Yom Kipper comes around. As those that also held the position can tell you, the president has to prepare a Kol Nidre appeal in the hopes of getting financial support for the Shul. What most people do not fully understand is that dues alone do not fully support what it takes to operate a synagogue and without additional funds, the doors could close.
As I am walking into the building to pray for another year of life and a further request to the Almighty that the JJC makes it through my tenure in office, I literally feel something that tells me all is not going as planned. It is hot inside the walls of the building and I quickly am told why. The AC has gone out. I am sitting on the bema and seeing a rarity within the establishment, a full house. I mean all of the seats in the sanctuary are filled along with the back to the point that you could not see everyone to the right in the ball room seats because in those days, even those seats are taken. That used to be our state of affairs and even then money was tight.
Anyway, I began to realize that I was the dumbest person in the building because everyone came up to me and asked me if I knew that the AC was out. I kept telling anyone who asked that even I came to that conclusion and I asked if they wanted me to attempt to fix the problem by myself or could they lend a hand. They said no to both but then again told me that the AC was out. I assured them that a call had been made to get someone over as soon as possible to rectify the situation but I got the feeling people did not realize that I personally could do nothing on my own to rectify the situation or the inconvenience this made to them. I don’t know if anyone left, but someone came, and the AC eventually went on again.
While this was going on, I thought back to my days of going to Shul with my father in the Bronx, and a weird smile came to my face. The synagogue in the Bronx did not have air conditioning at any time, yet the place was packed anyway. To this day, I remember people passing out, especially during Neilah, and then someone like my father going over to them and reviving them with smelling salts being placed under their noses. What was amazing was that they just got up, picked up their sidder, and went to the exact page of the prayer that was being recited and not caring that they had passed out. After all, there was still time to ask for another year in the Book of Life and that was what they were there to accomplish.
A person who thinks of his religious obligations as a burden and nuisance will do the bare minimum that is required by Jewish law. Once he or she is “off the hook,” one will no longer exert any effort in doing more. But the Jew who appreciates how Judaism enriches his or her life with depth and meaning does mitzvot with love. And when a mitzvah is done out of love, it is done with care and beauty.
When there is a call for action, it is not a time to talk about what you can do, but what you will do and I believe this is what G‑d wants to see from us. "Don’t tell me how talented or untalented you are," the Almighty says. "Just tell me what you’re ready and willing to do, and let me worry about the ‘able’ part.” It’s nice to know what you’re capable of. As part of the Jewish people, however, it is not a time to talk about what you can do, but what you will do. The failure to act when asked to do so, however well-intended, is seen as a deficiency.
We’re taught that the most essential ingredient is not contemplation or analysis, but action. When we’re presented with an opportunity to do a mitzvah, to become more religiously observant or to get involved in a worthwhile endeavor, let us lighten up a bit on the philosophical introspection and self-examination and "Just do it!" It is not when we become spiritual that we can first decide to act spiritual. Indeed, it is only if we act spiritual that we can become spiritual.
I saw it when I was president and someone came to me with a good idea. It really is not about brilliance, eloquence and experience as much as it is about confidence, persistence and performance. When I would respond with the idea being a good one, and followed it up with a suggestion that this person lead a group to accomplish the idea, most would tell me that they were too busy to actually get the work done and hoped others would pick up the mantle. Good ideas and worthwhile projects are suggested regularly. The question is, do they get off the drawing board? And if they do, how long do they last? What degree of permanence do they enjoy?
Going back to what I said in my opening remarks, why was it important to know that the AC went out during Yom Kippur? Perhaps it is because while one is here for Yom Kippur and everyone tries to be holy, the challenge is to be holy after Yom Kippur. It is relatively easy to be holy on the holiest day of the year. The test of faith is to maintain our good behavior in the days and weeks following the awesome, sacred experience. Will we still be inspired or will our enthusiasm have waned straight after Neilah? How many Synagogues are filled to capacity on Yom Kippur and struggle for a minyan the next morning? A son or daughter says Kaddish for one’s father or mother faithfully — for the week of Shiva. And then? Or perhaps he or she comes to Shul regularly and recites Kaddish for the full 11 months. And the next day he or she is gone.
Sacrifice can take many forms. It is hoped that the JJC is a part of that thinking and one can atone for ones perceived sins with giving back to this Shul what I suspect the Synagogue gives to everyone who walks in here.”
I am sorry that I am again expressing, albeit in a condensed form, my thoughts on Vayikra as I stated them a few years ago, but sometimes certain thoughts are worth repeating.
You proffer that the “Torah is more symbolic than literal.” Can you elaborate on that?
I like the second definition of sacrifice that you use. The question you raise about the connection of prayer to sacrifice is magnificent. I’d like to relate that to the story you tell from your tenure as JJC’s president. I can see the scene on Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. The incessant appeals to you about the AC being off is charming and compelling. The anecdote about people fainting seems to relate to the generosity that is the subject of what you write. They stood at the back of the synagogue and gave all they could in prayer to the point where they dropped. This seems to me like a kind of generosity, of giving all that you have.
I loved reading these reflections. To me, you can’t talk about the first parsha. You have to introduce the whole book. So I ask you, What is the subject of the Book of Leviticus? In your estimation, the subject is sacrifice. The subject of sacrifice in the Torah begins with Abraham’s binding of Isaac. The central message of the Book of Genesis is that human sacrifice is unworthy because human beings are created in the image of G-d. Yet, the desire to sacrifice is apparently not so easily eliminable. This book is apparently about sacrifice, but as the rabbis understand it, it’s about speech. How are these two ideas reconcilable? Or, what does speech have to do with sacrifice?
The mouth is the only organ in the body whose central muscle is both exposed and hidden. If sacrifice – as we learn in the Binding – is about “withholding”, then the connection appears more readily. Sacrifice is a public act. Speech is an act that starts privately – internally – and then enters the public square. For this reason, speech is central to the Bill of Rights.
The notion that speech is a public act is both ancient – think of Pericles – and modern. Our politicians understand the importance of public speech but have lost the notion of privacy that is the core of speech. This is why prayer is important because prayer is about speech. Perhaps, then the subject of Leviticus is prayer; and that would make sense considering that prayer is sacrifice’s successor as you indicate.
I don't know if Leviticus is more about speech as it is about expression. Our forefathers in the desert only knew about sacrifice in the "physical" sense through the offering of an animal. For that matter, what prayers were they looking at? It seems to me that the prayers we recite have evolved over the years. Take the Shema, (spoiler alert) it does not come up until later in our readings. I think some politicians misuse prayer when they speak in that they misinterpret the meaning of a particular prayer.
You are truly a non-orthodox, conservative Jew since you like the evolutionary dimension of Judaism. I don’t know that your example works. At one time, the sections on sacrifice were taken literally. They are only understood symbolically now that we don’t have the Temple, but when the Temple returns…What will we do when the Temple returns? Will it ever return?
I envy your experience at that Bronx shul. How invaluable that must have been for you in the development of your Judaism. You witnessed devotion. There is something humorous about showing up to pray for one’s life – just as long as the temperature is alright.
I mention the topic of speech because I am looking ahead. The whole section on leprosy is organized around lashon harah by the rabbis. For them, these sections of Leviticus teach about proper speech. Indeed, prayer and sacrifice co-existed for a time, but then speech became preeminent because sacrifice was no longer possible. Maimonides views this as a positive development since prayer is a higher form of worship.
One has to hope that one day the Temple will return. That being said, if we go back to having animal sacrifices, I'm out.