The Meaning of Sacrifice

On this Shabbat we begin the Book VaYikra (in English, “Leviticus”, because the book is really an instruction manual for the Levites and Kohanim, priests). This book records for us the ancient ritual of sacrifices as they were offered to our G-d (other sacrifices offered in specifically different ways were offered to other gods). What are we, two thousand years after the last sacrifice was brought to the Jerusalem Temple, to do with these texts?

This too is Torah, and within it there will be something that we need to learn, if we are willing to look closely and in a spirit of thoughtfulness. If we come to the text feeling dismissive, prejudging it as clearly meaningless, it will be. Follow the lead of generations of Jews who determined to keep it relevant because it is a memory of our ancestors, our grandparents and great-grandparents. Look closely at the words, see if something does not intrigue you. And if you can’t find it for yourself, read the commentaries. 

One example: VaYikra Chapter 1, verse 1: If you look closely at the first word, VaYikra, which means “[G-d] called” you will see that the last letter of the word, an alef, is written much smaller than the rest of the letters. What can be learned from this small alef? The alef is the first letter of the Hebrew alef-bet, and it is also the first letter of the word ani, “I”. Insight: sometimes one must make oneself small, i.e. humble, in order to hear G-d’s call.
The most intriguing question brought forth by this material for me is to consider:

What is the importance of sacrifice? The sacrifices our ancestors made seem far from us, and they are difficult to understand or to justify in our own day. But the details are preserved so completely and so carefully, at such length, that we should be curious as to why. Human nature has not changed so very much in only a couple of thousand years. What made the sacrificial system so necessary, in their eyes, to their relationship with the universe, and with G-d? What essential human need is served by giving up something of great value? Remember that for them, bringing an offering from their flocks of sheep or goats was a real financial sacrifice. One theory is that they felt that this was the only way to bring the universe back into balance after the kind of cosmic skewing caused by sin.
How does your Jewishness inform your understanding of sacrifice? Is there anything in your religious observances that moves you to sacrifice something for a greater good? Are you able to see the idea of sacrifice as answering an essential human need? To ask it another way, what, in your experience, is an effective way of atoning, bringing the universe back into alignment, after you sin?
I know, it’s a long time from Yom Kippur, Rabbi, why are you talking about sin? It’s one of those words from which we can learn a great deal if we are willing to bring it out of the box of toxic words damaged by powerful individuals who have used profound religious teachings for venal, manipulative purposes. Sin is simply that which separates you from G-d. Atonement through sacrifice may be a very powerful way of bringing you back home.

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