This week we begin reading the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, the central book in the Torah and many would suggest, the most significant. Much of the book details the sacrifices and the duties of the priests who ministered them. It was the first section of Torah taught to young children when they begin their study of Torah which seems to be a very unusual choice: what possible relevance could the details of the sacrificial system have to our youngest minds? This section of the Torah appears to be the one which is least relevant to our world today, the one with which we could potentially have the most challenge finding a connection. But I love the book of Leviticus, the minutae of the sacrifices and in some ways, I believe it is the most relevant of all the books in the Torah. Although we no longer see sacrifice as a path for us to connect with God, there is incredible wisdom in the system from which we can draw and apply to our world today.
First, we must consider the purpose of bringing a sacrifice to the Temple. We know it was not for God’s benefit, many places in the tradition say that God has no need of sacrifices, so what then was their purpose? Ellen Frankel, in her book The Five Books of Miriam, describes the process of bringing a sacrifice. She says (page 153):
“In a very real sense the ancient Israelite system of sacrifice served the same function as psychotherapy serves today. Those plagued by feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, depression and other “sins” harmful to our souls, seek out women and men specially trained in the art of expiation, who for a sacrificial fee help us to surrender these burdens to god and reach a new psychic balance. We too must still right the wrongs we have committed but we no longer need to drag it along behind us like a fattened ox or sheep, unintentional or imaginary sins. These we can turn over to God”
This, I think, is the power of the sacrifices. It provided a ritual means by which people could acknowledge and mark moments in their lives. It provided an outlet, enabling people to let go of guilt or shame from wrongs they may have committed. It gave them a chance to do something which would wipe the slate clean and enable them to move forward. At times of celebration and happiness, it provided a means of giving thanks, of acknowledging good fortune, counting blessings. It was a system which cared for the psychological well-being and health of its participants. There is great benefit in being able to work through these moments and to have a means of connecting at those times with yourself, in the context of community and in the presence of God.
I have been incredibly privileged in my rabbinate to see the power of ritual heal and help people to move forward with life. I have experienced it myself. Being able to acknowledge hurt, pain and suffering, difficult decisions, moments of struggle and desperation, is part of the healing process. It helps to recognize the enormity of what has happened to us. It can nurture our souls when we need it the most. And such rituals are needed not only for times of pain but also for moments of happiness and joy, gratitude, blessings and goodness.
Acknowledging the beauty in our lives and in our world also was an important part of the sacrificial system and a crucial part of the role ritual can play in our lives today. Marking significant moments while surrounded by community, by God, by family and friends can help us to restore balance in our lives, bring harmony and wholeness to our core and to draw us close to one another and our traditions.
So as we go on our annual journey through the book of Vayikra, I hope we can find connection and meaning in the holy act of bringing sacrifice and recreate those moments through our rituals.