Parashat Vayikra. Judith Radousky at Congregation Netivot Shalom on March 20, 2021.
This week we start the third book of the Torah with Parshat Vayikra, a Torah portion that introduces the 5 types of sacrifices to be offered in the sanctuary.
Back in the Eastern European shtetl, young 4–5-year-old students, among them my great grandfather Yonah, began their first Hebrew lessons with this text. Why this text? One explanation is that our young children are as pure and beautiful as the beauty and purity of the sacrifices offered in the Temple. Sounds nice, but as a Jewish Educator, I can assure you that it was chosen because of its limited number of Hebrew words, and repetitive vocabulary; sprinkle the blood, burn the fat, etc…repeated again and again as each type of sacrifice is described.
It’s easy to look at this Torah portion as simply a description of old rituals, but in many ways, it captures the essence of Judaism. That’s right, the essence of Judaism. Not the descriptions of the sacrifices themselves, but the bigger picture. Hang with me and I’ll explain.
Why a sacrifice to God? The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. The English word sacrifice leads us to think about “sacrifice” as giving up something with value, but the Hebrew word “korban” means to come close, or draw near.
It’s clear from the fear the Israelite people display when they think Moses abandons them, and they demand a golden calf, they are seeking a way to connect and feel God’s presence. God recognizes this need. Since the Jewish people are already familiar with sacrifices and alters from surrounding cultures, the tabernacle and the accompanying sacrificial rituals can easily be adapted for Jewish worship.
There are 5 basic categories of sacrifices:
Olah: Burnt offering (closer to the sacrifice of surrounding nations).
Zevach Sh’lamim: Thank you or gratitude.
Chatat: Sin offering, asking to be reconciled with God.
Asham: Guilt offering, for something you are worried you may have done.
Mincha: A meal offering, sharing your first fruits and produce from your agricultural labor.
Tucked away among the detailed sacrificial description are a few key lines reminding the Israelites that the physical sacrifice is only one part of the “korban,” drawing near to God. Leviticus 5:21-26 states that if a soul sins against God, and trespasses against God, by stealing, deceiving, hurting, lying, failing to retain lost property, violence, etc…. they first make monetary restitution for the value of the damage, along with an extra 1/5th penalty. Then, they bring the offering to God.
This doesn’t sound so radical. It’s a concept we are all familiar with from Yom Kippur. We are told our prayers atone for our actions between us and God, but we still need to right things with the people we have wronged. A careful reading of the Torah lines takes it a lot deeper. “If a soul sins against God, trespassing against God by lying, stealing, etc…Our harm to others is a wrongdoing to God. This is the core Jewish precept. Our ability to draw close to God is intertwined with our treatment of others. This core principle is embedded in the very first establishment of Jewish ritual and worship!
Then look at Zevach Sh’lamim, a sacrifice of gratitude. This is prepared with oil and unleavened cakes. A portion given to the priests and the needy, the rest a festive meal shared with family, friends, and community. We share our offering of well being and gratitude, and that is an important part of our “korban”. The drawing close to God is through our connection to each other.
Today, prayers and our modern holiday rituals replace our sacrifices. Netivot Shalom started as a davening minion, and that continues to be a strength. When it comes to worship, we have so much to offer. Prayer leaders with a variety of melodies, beautiful voices that fill the sanctuary with spirit and feelings, and congregants who step forward to share their connection to Torah. Shabbat at Netivot is an incredible place to grow and connect spiritually.
This last year, 2020, has been difficult: Plague; fires; isolation; floods; severe storms; all leaving a trail of destruction, shaking any feelings we had about comfort or security. Crisis brings out both the best and the worst in people. Increasing violence and hatred targeted at Asian and other minority communities. Our news brought us video of the Trader Joes in Santa Cruz, with a “maskless” mob forcing their way past those waiting patiently in line, demanding the right to shop, leaving a wake of discomfort among both the customers and the store personal who risk exposure to Covid every day. Others stormed the capital. Crisis also brings out the best. The heartwarming story of the restaurant dinner who left a $1000 tip, the waitress sharing her generous gift with the other restaurant workers. The blackout at a supermarket in Texas that then let all the shoppers leave with carts filled with groceries, no payment needed; younger shoppers then helping elders load their cars, so all could get home before the storm grew worse. Many volunteers who shopped for elderly neighbors so their neighbors could isolate and stay safe.
Like all religious communities, the Pandemic left Netivot Shalom with unique challenges. The Netivot Shalom community rose to the occasion, with online programing, online worship, and check in calls from members to members. At the same time the seeds that took root before the pandemic began to sprout and grow. Climate Tzedek boldly pushed forth a bolder vision, the Antiracism Initiative took off in full swing, and continues to move forward; with a black writer’s book group, others focusing on reparations, efforts to support our Indigenous neighbors, just to name a few.
As Netivot Shalom grew from a davening minyan to a full congregation, with a religious school, adult and children’s programs, a Chevra Kadisha, there were social action programs, a habitat for Humanity neighborhood project, monthly shelter dinners, joint programs with the Pacifica Institute, a March to support immigrant rights, but front and center was continuing to create a wonderful prayer experience. So, our shift to move social and racial justice work moves us in anew direction.
I know some members are concerned about the community’s larger push moving towards political advocacy and a growing focus on environmental and racial justice. They want Netivot Shalom to stay sanctuary, a spiritual home of peace. A place to pray and shelter from the problems around us. But when I look back at Leviticus as it describes the very first sacrifices, our way to draw close to God, this first description of Jewish sacrifice, these very first worship rituals are linked to social justice and community wellbeing. Netivot Shalom’s growing focus on justice is part of our community’s spiritual connection to God.
Maybe Leviticus is a good place to start with our young students. It captures the essence of Judaism: We draw close to God through reflection, through our willingness to recognize we have harmed others and make amends, through our acts of loving Kindness, along with the ritual and worship. They are not separate, they are connected, they are intertwined.