The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.
–Leviticus 1:1-2 (JPS Tanakh)
The book of Vayikra (Leviticus) primarily deals with what are commonly called “sacrifices” or “offerings.” According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: a “sacrifice” implies giving up something that is of value to oneself for the benefit of another. An “offering” implies a gift which satisfies the receiver. The Almighty does not need our gifts. He has no needs or desires. The Hebrew word is korban, which is best translated as a means of bringing oneself into a closer relationship with the Almighty. The offering of korbanot was only for our benefit to come close to the Almighty.
Leviticus is one of the books of the Bible that many Christians can’t stand. It’s so boring. “Anyway,” we say to ourselves, “aren’t we done with all of those icky, bloody sacrifices?”
According to blogger and author Derek Leman, the sacrifices teach us a good many things about Jesus or Yeshua Our Atonement, as he titles his new book. No, I’ve not laid eyes on it yet but at some point, I’ll probably need to get a hold of a copy so I can review it. In the meantime, I’ll just have to offer what meager insights I have on this week’s Torah Portion and what it means for Christians.
The clue is in what Rabbi Packouz says about the nature of sacrifices or “korbanot” which has the meaning not so much of slaying an animal to appease God, but to bring an offering to God in order to draw closer to Him. Where else do we see this imagery?
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
–Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
–1 Peter 2:4-5 (ESV)
Paul calls us to be living sacrifices and Peter says to offer God spiritual sacrifices. Obviously, in neither case are they suggesting that we bring animal sacrifices to the Temple or to offer (gulp) our own bodies as physical sacrifices on the pyre, though as I once mentioned, every soul can be considered to be on the altar of God.
When we connect our lives to making a “sacrifice for God,” we usually think of depriving ourselves of something, doing without, even suffering pain and torture. I can’t say that’s not what God will ask of us. After all, in China and elsewhere in the world, Brother Yun and many others like him have suffered greatly and sacrificed much for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But regardless of what God may ask of you or me, whatever it is, it’s not a matter of what we are doing without but what immeasurable treasures we gain, the greatest of which is the drawing closer to God.
Sometimes it’s not a matter of waiting around to see what God will ask. Sometimes it’s a matter of looking around and seeing what needs to be done.
Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov once came to the marketplace in Yaroslav. He was passing among the vendors, checking the quality of the straw and hay for sale, when he met his friend Rabbi Shimon of Yaroslav.
“Rebbe, what are you doing here?” R. Shimon asked in surprise.
“Leave out my ‘rebbe’ and your ‘rebbe,’ and come with me to carry a bale of hay to a poor widow who had no hay or straw upon which to lay her broken body,” the Sassover replied pungently.
The two holy leaders went together, hauling a bale of hay on their shoulders. Astonished bystanders stared in wonder and moved aside to make room for them to pass.
As they went, Rabbi Moshe Leib remarked, “Were the Holy Temple standing today, we would be bringing sacrifices and libations. Now we bring straw, and it is as though we have all the kavanot (spiritual intentions) that come with offering the minchah sacrifice.”
Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov’s father, R. Yaakov, would take a job before Passover grinding wheat at the mill—not for himself, though he was also a poor man, but for a widow and orphan who lived in his neighborhood. And he did this despite his great and abiding love for the Torah, which he learned constantly.
Moshe Leib, his son, followed in his father’s footsteps. Despite his greatness in Torah, he did not worry about his honor when it came to performing acts of kindness for his fellow Jew with his own hands, even if they were beneath his status in the eyes of others.
We are the closest to God when we are the closest to other human beings, especially those who have needs far greater than our own. Here we see that two men, two Rebbes who normally did not carry their own straw much less carry straw for a poor widow drew closer to God by looking around, seeing a need, and responding unreservedly. Or as the Master taught:
The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
–Matthew 23:11-12 (ESV)
Drawing closer to God is inconsistent with claiming self-righteousness, self-exaltation, and self-privilege. Servitude, humility, kindness, and a spirit willing to help with no expectation of return draws Creator and creation into close proximity. Seeking who we are in God brings us closer to God. Seeking who and what somebody else is in God as if it were our own will only bring trouble.
This is the way of Torah: eat bread with salt, drink water by measure, and sleep on the earth.
-Ethics of the Fathers 6:4
Does observance of Torah require living a life of poverty and depriving ourselves of all the niceties of the world.
Certainly not. The Talmud is elaborating upon another Talmudic statement: “Who is wealthy? One who is content with his portion” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).
People who can be happy with the basics of life – food, clothing, and shelter – can truly enjoy the luxuries of life, because they can be happy even without them. Those whose happiness depends upon having luxuries are likely to be perennially dissatisfied, in constant need of more, and consequently unhappy, even if they have everything they desire.
A wise man once observed a display of various items in a store window. “I never knew there were so many things I can get along without,” he said.
If bread and water can satisfy us, then we can enjoy a steak. If we are not satisfied unless we have caviar, we will discover that even caviar is not enough.
Today I shall…
…try to be content with the essentials of life and consider everything else as optional.
-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Nisan 2”
As Rabbi Twerski says, this isn’t an invitation to pursue self-deprivation, to give all our belongings to the poor, and then move to India to work with lepers. It’s not even an invitation to abandon motivation and striving to better ourselves, our incomes, and our positions in life. It is, however, an invitation to consider that after we’ve done all we can in taking care of ourselves, our families, and our neighbors, to look around, take stock of our environment, and to realize that we should be satisfied with the gifts of God’s providence. It is from those gifts that we give back to others and give back to God, for everything belongs to Him anyway, and who we are and what we have only exists so that we may serve Him.
And by serving God and serving others, we serve ourselves, for what we then achieve is union and belonging and closeness to who and where we came from in the first place.