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On devotion

Thoughts on Parashat Vayikra

Menachem Mirski

This week we begin reading Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. Leviticus contains detailed instructions regarding our ancient Temple ritual: animal sacrifice, priesthood, uncleanliness and purity, atonement and holiness. The Torah portion for this week is entirely devoted to animal sacrifices and they are: olah (burnt offering, also known as ascending offering), mincha (meal offering), shelamim (peace offering), chatat (sin offering) and asham (guilt offering).

Olah, burnt offering, was the oldest and most common sacrifice, and represented complete submission to God’s will. The Hebrew word olah, from the root ayin-lamed-hey, means ascension. An olah could be from cattle, sheep, goats, or even birds, depending on the offerer’s means. Because this offering represented complete submission to God’s will the entire offering was given to God, which meant that this sacrifice was completely burnt on the outer altar and no part of it was eaten by anyone nor used after it was burned. It expressed a desire to commune with God, which can be seen as an expression of absolute devotion to His service. Although this sacrifice was not made for the purpose of atonement, it did expiate sins, incidentally in the process (because how could you commune with G-d if you were tainted with sins?) There is an opinion (based on discussion in Talmud, Yoma 29a) that this sacrifice was made to atone for sinful thoughts (vs actions), for which none of the offerings that served for expiation (chatat and asham) were meant to atone.

To many contemporaries, this sacrifice may seem to be absolutely senseless and pointless, drastic, completely against common sense and not in line with the values we profess today, even though we understand the concept of God wanting us to show Him our complete devotion and we constantly tell the stories of His absolute devotion towards us, like the story of our deliverance from Egypt. The only sacrifices our religion requires from us today are those that relate to the rejection of things, behaviors, habits, lifestyles or beliefs (like immoral behavior, hedonistic models of life, and other things like not keeping kosher or not observing Shabbat – the complete list is long and differs in different streams of Judaism). However, we often talk and hear that life itself requires sacrifices, especially in its social context. We know that love and deep relationships with others require sacrifices. We realize our sacrifices when we have to give up something for someone we love or care for like a relative, friend or beloved person. These kinds of sacrifices are often tied to various dilemmas in decision making and can be difficult to make. But lets not forget about small sacrifices, supposedly meaningless, that would cost us very little or nothing and that are primarily made to show our devotion towards other human beings, in particular, our beloved. While they often do not entail losses and or dilemmas they nevertheless are vital and meaningful. To show our devotion and care for others, to express our constant readiness to help, to “hear” someone, to maintain connection with another person is very important even when it doesn’t mean a total devotion or complete sacrifice. Showing authentic devotion, constant care, desire to commune with others, showing our readiness to be there for the people we love builds and increases psychological stability, something that we need and especially need during difficult times. It also is a sort of panacea for us, a panacea for “non-kosher” thoughts and emotions we may be prone to in the difficult times and moments.

To sacrifice is a mighty, sometimes heroic, task. But sacrifice can be broken down into small little acts to all the people around you, bonding you to your community and to God.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski