Rabbi Danny Gimpel
The third book of the Torah, Vayikra, which we begin to read this week is also called by our sages "Torat Kohanim - the law of the priests."
The third book of the Torah, Vayikra, which we begin to read this week is also called by our sages "Torat Kohanim - the law of the priests." This name is very appropriate because of the tremendous number of laws and details spent describing the sacrificial services of the Kohanim (priests) in the mishkan (Tabernacle). For many in our Western society the concept of animal sacrifice is difficult to come to grips with, and most people simply attribute such practices to primitive civilizations. Perhaps to better understand the role of animal sacrifice we should try to determine the purpose of a sacrifice. The first step could be to understand the Hebrew word for sacrifice, "karban", which comes from the same root as the word "karov - to come close." A karban/sacrifice is a means by which we draw close to Hashem.
When someone upsets us, our reaction is usually to become angry and as a result we distance ourselves from that person. We are displeased with him until we eventually forgive and forget or until we are appeased. Similarly when we sin, we distance ourselves from Hashem because of our displeasing actions which damage our relationship with Him. Sacrifices provide a means for repairing this damaged relationship, bringing us close to Hashem once again. Still, how are we to understand on some level that sacrificing an actual animal brings us closer to Hashem?
Many commentators explain that the killing of an animal is meant to represent what the transgressor himself really deserves for violating Hashem's command, and the animal is in place of the transgressor's punishment. When a person sees the sacrifice resting on the altar, he is supposed to envision himself in the animal's place, a thought which should arouse feelings of teshuva (repentance). The act of slaughtering an animal also plays some role of retribution for the sinner in the heavenly courts, achieving a degree of forgiveness.
But perhaps with a different approach to understanding the animal sacrifice, we might gain some sense of appreciation for what was expressed in such an act. For a successful relationship between a husband and wife to develop, each one must be concerned for the other's needs. The relationship always requires each one to give to the other. This giving very often conflicts with their personal needs and desires, yet the "sacrifice" of self-interest to support and provide for the other strengthens the relationship with feelings of love, dependence, and dedication. If we could imagine living in an agricultural society with our major possessions being livestock (imagine a car) and we were required to part with our most prized belongings by offering it to Hashem, we would feel the sacrifice which we made in giving that treasure away. This sacrifice would either be felt as a punishment or, if voluntarily brought, would cultivate feelings of love through the giving of myself to Hashem. It is difficult to understand Hashem's "pleasure" from the sacrifice, but the human dimension of giving draws us closer to Hashem in a very real sense.
This same closeness can be accomplished today, even without sacrifices, through a different means of giving of ourselves. The Rambam (Maimonides), the great medieval codifier of Jewish law, writes that the greatest positive mitzvah in the Torah is the giving of charity because it brings a unification of the Jewish people, which he says will lead to the eventual coming of the Mashiach (Messiah). From the lesson of the sacrifices, let us resolve to assist our fellow Jews in need, while at the same time helping ourselves become better human beings.
Rabbi Danny Gimpel, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is currently enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.
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