THE PURE OFFERING
by Rabbi Alexander
It's quite literally one of the sweetest sights to see: A three-year-old child being brought to cheder for his first lesson in Torah. The highlight of it (for the child, at least!) is when the child gets to lick honey off a sheet of paper with the Hebrew alphabet written on it - to teach that the Torah should be sweet to him.
It's quite literally one of the sweetest sights to see: A three-year-old child being brought to cheder for his first lesson in Torah. The highlight of it (for the child, at least!) is when the child gets to lick honey off a sheet of paper with the Hebrew alphabet written on it - to teach that the Torah should be sweet to him. Another part of the ceremony is when the teacher recites the first verse of this week's Torah portion, and the child repeats each word after him.
Why does the child's learning begin with the Book of Leviticus? The Midrash explains, "Let the pure (children) come and study about items of purity" - the korbanot (offerings), which are the main subject of this book.
It's a charming analogy, but we more sophisticated adults may well ask: Why is taharah (spiritual purity) considered the distinguishing characteristic of the korbanot? True enough, the person who offers a sacrifice has to be tahor (spiritually pure), and some types of korbanot effect atonement for various sins and thereby purify those who bring them. But based on these reasons, "purity" is an attribute of the person involved rather than of the korban (offering) itself.
Actually, when we examine the matter, we do find one instance in which taharah is the sole necessary condition for the korban itself. When Noah brought all the animals into the ark that he had constructed, Hashem commanded him "to take seven pairs of every pure animal" (Genesis 7:2), andsome of these were later brought by Noah as offerings after the flood (ibid. 8:20).
Since Noah was a gentile who lived before the giving of the Torah, and even before the Patriarchs who kept the Torah on their own, the concept of a distinction between "pure" animals (meaning those that are permissible for Jews to eat) and "impure" ones seems like an anachronism. In fact, Noah is so much the archetype of the non-Jew that our sages refer to non-Jews as "the children of Noah," and yet, in this sole instance, he was commanded to act according to Jewish law.
One reason is that both the salvation of Noah from the flood and the concept of offering korbanot are expressions of Hashem's choice. To all outward appearances, a Jew's offering is not much different from a non-Jew's, and both are pretty gory affairs. The fact that Hashem commands in the Torah that our primary form of serving Him should be with a korban (as opposed to some ostensibly more "spiritual" activity such as prayer), reflects the fact that even where the Jew and the non-Jew are externally similar, it is specifically the Jew who is the chosen one. As the verse (Malachi 1:2) puts it, "Is not Esau a brother (the apparent equal) of Jacob, says Hashem? Yet I love Jacob." Put differently, there is no need for Hashem to choose the spiritual side of the Jew, since that is already a part, so to speak, of the Jew; when we speak of the Jewish people as the chosen people, this refers in particular to the physical body and the physical mitzvah-actions of a Jew.
Though Noah lived long before Hashem chose the Jewish nation as His people at Mt. Sinai, he partook in some measure of that choice. In the Rosh Hashanah prayers, in the blessing of Zichronot (Remembrances) where we ask Hashem to remember the Jewish people for good in the coming year, we mention how "You remembered Noah with love" - the same term that we use of Hashem's relationship to the Jewish people. In other words, the relationship between Gd and Noah was on the same plane as the relationship between Gd and the Jewish people, a relationship like that of a parent and child that needs no logical reason to validate it. So, appropriately enough, when the time came to demonstrate that Noah was a divinely chosen person, this was done by means of a law that demonstrates Gd's choice.
Returning now to our three-year-old child, he too may appear to be externally similar to his non-Jewish peers. After all, he has not even reached the age of chinuch (training) for observance of mitzvot! So, then, in what way is he different? He is special only because Hashem ultimately needs no reasons for His choice. A Jew, even the littlest one or the most alienated one, is part of Hashem's chosen people. And when this child, whose connection to Hashem is "pure" of any external factors, begins his Jewish education with the laws of the korbanot, this harks back to Noah, who also enjoyed a "pure" relationship with Hashem and who expressed this with his Jewish-style offerings.
Sophisticated adults though we are, each of us still has that three-year-old's spark of "pure" relationship to Hashem, a level at which we are beloved by Him no matter how low we may have fallen. The task is ours, then, to use that spark to ignite a roaring fire of devotion to Hashem and His Torah. He will reciprocate our efforts by returning to us the Temple with its inextinguishable fire on the altar to consume our korbanot, symbols of that inextinguishable relationship with Hashem that each of us possesses.
This article was adapted from an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.
Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.
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