Thoughts on Vayikra

canstockphoto0885276In traditional synagogues around the world, three Torah Scrolls will be used this coming Shabbat, if the community is fortunate enough to have three Torah Scrolls. The first scroll will be for the regular Parasha, Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26,[i] which opens with HaShem calling to Moshe, from the Tent of Meeting instead of from the mountaintop, launching into the hows and whys of various offerings for both the priests and the people. As this day is also Rosh Chodesh, the special reading from Numbers 28:9-15 will be read from the second scroll. This short reading covers the special sacrifices for Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh. Finally, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh because it begins the ritual year in preparation for Pesach and the Feast of Matzot (Unleavened Bread), is the third reading, Exodus 12:1-20. While sacrifices are not specially mentioned in this reading, there is the command to place the blood of the unblemished lamb on the door posts and crossbeams of everyone’s dwelling, which is followed by a meal in which the entire lamb, the Passover lamb, is roasted in the fire. There is also a special Haftarah reading for Shabbat HaChodesh, Ezekiel 45:18 – 46:15, which unsurprisingly also deals with sacrifices offered in the Sanctuary of Ezekiel’s Temple. Without sounding redundant, sacrifice is a major theme throughout this week’s readings.

One has to wonder, if the common understanding of Hebrews 10:1-18, that the sacrifices were ineffective, even futile – why did HaShem go to all the effort and verbiage to describe in minute detail how the sacrifices were to be accomplished. A couple of years ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks presented a teaching in which he made the following observation concerning the offering of sacrifices,

Among the simplest yet most profound was the comment made by R. Shneor Zalman of Ladi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch. He noticed a grammatical oddity about the second line of today’s parsha:

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: when one of you offers a sacrifice to the Lord, the sacrifice must be taken from the cattle, sheep or goats. (Lev. 1:2)

Or so the verse would read if it were constructed according to the normal rules of grammar. However, in Hebrew the word order of the sentence is strange and unexpected. We would expect to read: adam mikem ki yakriv, “when one of you offers a sacrifice”. Instead what it says is adam ki yakriv mikem, “when one offers a sacrifice of you”. The essence of sacrifice, said R. Shneor Zalman, is that we offer ourselves. We bring to God our faculties, our energies, our thoughts and emotions. The physical form of sacrifice –an animal offered on the altar – is only an external manifestation of an inner act. The real sacrifice is mikem, “of you”. We give God something of ourselves.[ii]

“The real sacrifice is mikem, “of you”. We give God something of ourselves” sounds a lot like Rav Shaul’s exhortation to the believers in Rome, “I urge you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice—holy, acceptable to God—which is your spiritual service” (Romans 12:1). In other words, it is the kavanah, the attitude of the heart, that is important with any sacrifice. Interestingly, the Psalmist wrote,

I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices, for your burnt offerings are continually before Me. … A sacrifice of praise honors Me, and to the one who orders his way, I will show the salvation of God,” (Psalm 50: 8 & 23).

One further note from Rabbi Sacks, specifically on the sin offerings (cf. Leviticus 4 & 5) referring to the Medieval commentator Abarbanel who

…argues that the sin offering was less a punishment for what had been done, than a solemn warning against sin in the future. The bringing of a sacrifice, involving considerable effort and expense, was a vivid reminder to the individual to be more careful in the future.[iii]

Abarbanel is not detracting from the sacrifice and its efficacy for atonement, rather he was suggesting that the sacrifice was to serve as a warning against doing the same thing again. Throughout the parasha it appears to be a given Israel, the priests, the rulers and the common people who sinned. Correct or not, Albert Einstein was credited as saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” HaShem knew Israel would sin, but to avoid insanity He expected them (as well as us today) to learn not to do wrong and to change the pattern of their activity. In a similar vein, Moshe later encouraged the people “to choose life so that you and your descendants may live, by loving Adonai your God, listening to His voice, and clinging to Him. For He is your life and the length of your days,” Deuteronomy 30:19-20).

Changing focus a bit, this week’s Besorah reading is from Luke 10:25-42. One of the Torah experts from the crowd tried to trip-up Yeshua asking “what’s the greatest commandment?”. Yeshua answered quickly v’ahavta et Adonai; v’ahavta l’reiacha – love Adonai and love your neighbor. Following this he told a parable intended to lead the scribe to understand not only who his neighbor was but also what his response to his neighbor should be. In a manner of speaking, Yeshua indicated that the answer to Cain’s question, “am I my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9), is and always would be a resounding yes – if it is within our power and purview to do so. Therefore, becoming living sacrifices that honor our Lord as well as being available to show mercy, to give assistance when needed by our neighbor should be our goals as we v’ahavta et Adonai; v’ahavta l’reiacha.


[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.



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