By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
With this Parsha/Torah Reading, we enter upon the third book of the Chumash/Pentateuch, known as Vayikra, “And God called,” or by its Latin name, Leviticus, the Laws of the Levites and Priests. This last name is close to its other Hebrew name, Torat Kohanim, or the “Laws of the Priests.” Traditionally, this was the first book which young boys would study at the European yeshivot/Hebrew schools—probably in preparation for Messiah’s Coming and the Rebuilding of the Holy Temple. Today, it is more traditional to begin with Beraysheet, Genesis, to learn how we got here in the first place.
Following the dramatic narratives of Genesis and Exodus, it is challenging for rabbis and teachers to find something awe-inspiring to say about this book, which is mainly long lists of the various sacrifices and offerings the Israelites made at the Mishkan, the Wilderness Sanctuary, under the supervision of the Kohanim and Leviim, the Priests and the Levites.
Since we follow the Prophet Hosea’s dictum, following the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, that “the words of our lips (in prayer) will take the place of the bullocks and rams formerly offered as sacrifices,” what symbolic or aesthetic meaning can we possibly draw from a vision of God’s House as a place of slaughter and roasted meat? Portions would be dealt out and eaten by the Levite tribe and their families, and other parts burnt on the altar. Even the ashes and blood would be used as part of the ritual, symbolizing the fragility and preciousness of life.
Early in the portion, we find the verse, “Anyone (lit., ‘any soul’) who brings a meal-offering to the Lord [shall make that offering] of fine flour, add olive oil to it, and pour frankincense on it, as well” (Lev. 2:1). Rashi (1040-1105), our French-Jewish Master Commentator, notes that “nefesh,” the Hebrew word for “soul,” is used only here, in the context of bringing the korban mincha, the meal-offering, and that meal-offerings, rather than cattle, were usually the choice of poor people, since they could not afford to sacrifice what few cows or sheep they owned. However, God would credit them the same as if they had brought cattle, because He considered it as though they were offering their very soul, not just flour and oil.
A modern-day rabbi, HaRav Eliyahu Meir Bloch z’l, adds to this idea of Rashi’s. A wealthy person who brings an entire cow as an offering may pride himself on the size and magnificence of his offering—a cow could feed an entire family for many days, after all, and slaughtering it meant a considerable loss of milk, cheese, and other dairy goods. The rich person might therefore believe that all of his sins were forgiven.
By contrast, the poor person might feel lacking in his sad little meal-offering. He would realize that, despite his lack of money, a simple pan of flour was insufficient to atone for his sins before God. Fearful that God might not forgive his sins for such a meager “sacrifice,” the poor person would psychologically supplement it with his very soul (nefesh), hoping with all his heart that God would accept his true and sincere apology and penitence for any wrongdoings he might have committed against God.
The lesson for us is clear: whether rich or poor, our prayers and entreaties before God are meaningless, unless we offer them with a sincere and contrite heart. We cannot go on, sinning and simply repenting afterwards. We cannot fool God; we are only fooling ourselves. It is tragic that there are all too many celebrities, in politics, public life, entertainment, business, and other areas, who somehow believe that they are “above the law” in dealing with Divine Judgment. In God’s eyes, we are all equal, and we are all being judged, every moment. Of what avail is our wealth, our possessions, our personal and professional connections? Make no mistake: there is a Judgment, and a Judge.
Only turn to God: if you take just a few short steps toward Him in sincerity, He will come miles to meet you. Yes, God is judgmental, but compassionate, as well, and a thousand thousand times more compassionate than one could ever imagine.
Take the first step: turn to God.