Friday, March 18, 2016

"Offering our Best" - D'var Torah - Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus Chapter1) - March 18, 2016

  This is the first time that I can remember reading from the very beginning of the book of Leviticus during a service.  It is more than just Reform rabbis that have what I might call Leviticophobia – a fear of or an aversion to speaking directly about the sacrificial sections of the book of Leviticus.  
   When I spoke about Leviticus at a local church last summer, the first person in the group who made a comment declared that he despised the text.   I asked why.  He said that Leviticus deserved his disdain “because it’s all about God saying to the people, ‘Follow my laws or I will kill you!’”    I reminded him that what Judaism considers fundamental principles of the Torah, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Love the stranger as yourself,” are both contained in Leviticus.   I also suggested that any phrase like “those who fail to do a,b, or c shall be put to death” might not need to be taken literally.   It might have been biblical hyperbole intended to set a boundary for behavior. 
    One main reason for Leviticophobia, I believe, is the desire not to read from the Torah the anatomical details and long, meticulous instructions shared in the sections that describe animal sacrifice.   I must admit that I will conclude my reading from the Torah with Chapter 1, verse 5 for that very reason.  I should share a story, though, from a memorable session of my theology class at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.  Dr. Jakob Petuchowski, a major scholar of liturgy and theology, walked into class one day and began like this.  “What did you have for dinner last night?”  We were a bit stunned – and surprised.  Someone said, “Chicken.”   He said, “No, you didn’t have chicken for dinner.  You had dead chicken!”   My initial response to myself was, “Thank you for the reminder, Dr. Petuchowski!”  Still, my esteemed professor and teacher quite successfully made a point that we are not so far removed from our Israelite ancestors in the aspect that, if we are not vegetarians, we are still doing what they did in terms of killing animals for food.  But there is one difference.   In his description of animal sacrifices in his Torah translation, Dr. Everett Fox explained that when human societies turned to hunting and killing animals in order to eat, they may have experienced at least a twinge of guilt at taking a life for their own benefit.   Some communities felt like they had to give something back to the earth, or to their god, who represented creation and life itself to the people.   Thus came the beginnings of elaborate rules for rituals for animal sacrifice, which assumed a central place in Israelite worship as described in the book of Leviticus. 
9th-8th Century BCE Altar found dismantled at Beersheva
   One barrier to understanding the purpose of these rituals may derive from using the English word “sacrifice.” Or, perhaps not.    Here are the simple definitions of “sacrifice” from Merriam-Webster online:

  •  the act of giving up something that you want to keep especially in order to get or do something else or to help someone
  • an act of killing a person or animal in a religious ceremony as an offering to please a god
  •  a person or animal that is killed in a sacrifice
Any of you who are baseball fans know that “sacrifice” has a special meaning in that sport.   When a runner is on base with no outs or one out in an inning, the batter may bunt instead of swinging away to allow the runner to advance with the likelihood that he or she, the batter, will be thrown out at first base.   Or, when there is a runner on third base, if the batter hits a long fly ball that is caught for an out, the base runner on third can tag the base once the ball is caught and, if he or she scores, the out is called a “sacrifice fly.”   In each case, the batter gives up the possibility of getting a hit for the greater good of the team.  And, as a bonus and consideration to the noble act of self-sacrifice, the batter is not charged with an at-bat.   This is the only time in baseball when a batter who makes an out is viewed as having succeeded in that moment!
    We may not think that the sacrificial cult of ancient Judaism involved “giving ourselves up” like the generous hitter at the plate who tries to make an out. There is some connection, and to understand why, we only need to look at the terms used even in just the first five verses of the book of Leviticus.   The animals that someone owned, or, for that matter, any grain that he or she grew, were viewed as extensions of that individual.     Animals and grain could be used for profit or gain for the ancient Israelites, but they also knew that they had an obligation to share what they owned with the community and with God.   In his translation, Everett Fox refers to the OLAH, commonly called a burnt offering, as an “offering-up.” The word comes from the root that means to go up or ascend, as in the word ALIYAH. OLAH suggest the higher purpose that is involved in giving away something that is yours to God, as if you are relinquishing part of yourself in order to feel close to the divine.  That sense of closeness leads us to the second term for offering, KORBAN, which Fox calls a “near-offering.” KORBAN comes from the root in Hebrew which means to approach or draw near.     Bringing an offering often had the purpose of setting things right with God, what we know as atonement.  Such an act of worship was also, at its core, an admission of human imperfection and an expression of humility that might lead each person to approach his or her fellow human beings with the same respect and reverence that characterized how one acted in the presence of God Or in a holy place.  The offerings were also seen as gifts presented to God, not that God needed them, but that we needed them.  In the act of giving, we hope to bring to the surface higher and more noble versions of ourselves and our character.   
      So our Israelite ancestors realized that they shouldn’t expect to amass possessions and, then,  to be able to keep everything that came to them.    They saw it as a responsibility and a duty to give back, not only through animal sacrifices offered in worship, but also in their behavior.   Those acts of giving and of drawing close to God are enshrined in the rabbinic statement AL SH’LOSHAH D’VARIM – on three things, the world stands:  on learning, on worship, and on loving deeds.    When we study, we share our ideas with others and are guided by Jewish tradition to listen to the views of others in return with the hope of coming to a consensus or a meeting of the minds.   When we pray, what we add to congregational reading and singing and what we express to ourselves in silent meditation is the substitute for the offerings our ancestors brought to the altar that drew them near to God.   We are taught to pray now with the same reverence, fervor, and passion that has always been a hallmark of our heritage.  When we do acts of kindness, we often are giving up something of ourselves to help someone else, somewhat like the batter who makes an out and succeeds in moving a runner to the next base.   In real life, though, the stakes are higher, and the love, care and compassion which we show others might help them to be self-supporting in a way that we would want and hope for them to achieve.    
     To draw close to God, to give back to the community, to raise ourselves to a higher place in terms of our own values and character, means to always give the best of what we have, and never to fall into a sense that there isn’t more we can do.  When it comes to enabling the world to stand, it is only our best efforts that will make that goal and dream possible.   So may we give and do! 

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