This week we begin the reading the book of Vayikra, known by some as Leviticus. The book begins with several portions that focus on the Mitzvah of bringing sacrifices and the service of the Priests in the Temple.
The obligation to bring offerings in the Temple is perhaps one of the most misunderstood portions in the Torah. People will often ask: What right do we have to sacrifice animals? Does God need sacrifices? What do people get from such offerings? Often, people feel that there is something very Pagan-like about this Jewish practice.
What needs to be understood is that the opportunity for a Jew to bring a Sacrifice was one of the most uplifting rituals, a powerful experience that fused that bridged the gap between the physical and the spiritual and allowed a person to express their most powerful emotions in a very tangible way.
Whereas Pagan sacrifices were to appease finite gods who needed gifts so that humans could avoid their wrath, Jewish offerings are quite the opposite. They are not for God. Nor is this some type of bribe to get on God’s "good side." Jewish sacrifices are completely for the sake of elevating the one bringing it.
The Hebrew term for offering, korban, actually means “to come close.” Man’s goal is to strive to come as close to God as one possibly can. Bringing an animal to the Temple, and elevating its parts on the altar to God, declares our intent to bring our material side closer to God. Our physical drive for worldly pleasures- for food, sex, money and honor- all come from a part of us known as our "Animalistic soul". When we bring the animal on the Altar it is as if we are telling the Almighty to consume our animalistic soul with a holy fire and elevate to a place that it will only be used to come close to God and not detract from our spiritual service.
One a deeper level, when a person yearns for a connection with the Almighty, when one has a burning desire for the ultimate closeness to God, it can be compared to a consuming fire that could swallow one up. In a moment of intense inspiration or expanded consciousness, even the simplest Jew can feel the desire to run a way from the material shackles of the world which constantly distract us and hold us back from actualizing our potential. The Torah, which was given to man to fulfill in this material world, channels that emotion into bringing an animal, rather than yourself.
We are taught that every act that was done to the animal was accompanied by a meditation of its owner that this should really be my body. That feeling of yearning, the burning fire inside of someone to connect with God in such a deep way, was able to be expressed through this holy animal.
We no longer have Sacrifices. The Talmud says that prayer has taken the place of Sacrifice. What we can all learn from the ritual of Sacrifices is how one must pray. With a fire burning inside! With emotions so strong that one’s heart feels like it want to jump out of his chests, as it yearns to be close to the Almighty. Like we read every Shabbat morning in the Prayer called Nishmas “All of my bones are crying out, Hashem who is like you”. Prayer is a full body experience. We sway, we chat, we sing, we cry, we dance; whatever takes to arouse ourselves.
May we merit one day soon to have the Temple service returned to us, but for now, let us merit to have the fire of the Altar be replaced with the fire in our hearts to connect to Hashem in the deepest and most powerful way.