This week, we begin a section of the Torah that many find difficult to relate to. Many relate easily to the stories of the first families in Bereshit (Genesis), or the soaring triumph of the Exodus, but in our lives today, what possible connection can we have with the idea of animal sacrifice? Our disconnect possibly is rooted in the misunderstanding of the word sacrifice.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in his commentary on Vayikra, writes the following: Today the word “sacrifice” means an act of self-deprivation. We give up something of value for the sake of a greater value:
we may sacrifice a vacation to make more money, or sacrifice luxuries in order to educate our children, or sacrifice life for nation or faith. Such a sacrifice is deemed regrettable, even though necessary; if we could attain the larger end without the sacrifice, we should do so. Prudence therefore counsels us to make a sacrifice only after careful deliberation and to sacrifice no more than is needed to attain our goal.
That is not what the ancients meant by sacrifice. To them it was a religious rite, most often a joyful one. The offering was as large and choice as the worshiper could afford to make it. It was always a sacrifice to some deity or power – not – as in our usage – a sacrifice for some end. The sacrifice might indeed be offered in the hope to obtain a favor, or warding off disaster, or of achieving purification from ritual defilement or sin. But just as often, perhaps more often, it was an expression of reverence and thanksgiving.
We should note that the term sacrifice comes from the Latin word meaning “to make something holy. The most common Hebrew equivalent is Korban, “something brought near” i.e. to the altar.
This beautiful connection, to bring closer to, or to come closer to, is the actual purpose of the rituals described in such detail in the book of Vayikra. The method today obviously has changed, but the ultimate goal is an attempt to bridge the gap between God and us.
We give of our time and energy, to our loved ones, to our friends, and to our community, not as an expense to be paid or a burden to shoulder, but something we joyously and freely choose to do.
By altering how we perceive the idea of sacrifice, and all it entails, we hopefully can connect to our history and tradition a bit more, by understanding the motivations, and seeing that today, we practice in much the same manner as our ancestors did, in thought, if not in deed.