Vayikra, Origins of Sacrifice

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 1 year ago

      We are entering the part of the year when much of our reading consists of detailed instructions regarding sacrifices. The Torah places a huge amount of emphasis on sacrifices; they are clearly very important. Chazal even assert that parts of the Torah that do not appear to be dealing with sacrifices are, in fact, dealing with them.

      For example, near the very beginning of the Torah[1], we find the assertion that Man is placed in Eden לעבדה ולשמרה—to work and keep it. The Netziv asks why this is necessary: would the plants in Eden not grow on their own? Chazal clearly ask this question too[2], because they start looking in the Torah to see what those two words really mean. For the first word, they cite[3] when God talks to Moshe at the burning bush and says בהוציאך את העם ממצרים תעבדון את האלקים על ההר הזה—“When you take the people out of Egypt, they will ‘work’ God on this mountain.” They conclude that this word refers to sacrifices. Looking at the next word, they cite[4] את קרבני…תשמרו—“ ‘keep’ My sacrifices.” And they conclude that this, too, refers to sacrifices. This is a strong indication that the whole purpose of Man has to do with sacrifices.

      It is also interesting to note the incident[5] when Avraham asks God, regarding the Land of Israel, “how do I know that I will inherit it?” Rabbi Chiya, the son of Rabbi Chanina, interprets this as “In what merit will my descendants inherit this land?” God’s response is to instruct Avraham to make sacrifices, and Rabbi Chiya’s conclusion is that we merit to inherit the land because we bring sacrifices.

      After seeing the importance of sacrifices in the Torah, it can be jarring to move on to the Navi and find apparently the opposite. Shmuel rhetorically asks Shaul[6] החפץ לה’ בעלות וזבחים כשמע בקול ה’—“Does God like burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as He likes [you] listening to God’s voice?” Yeshayahu writes[7] למה לי רב זבחיכם יאמר ה’…לא תוסיפו הביא מנחת שוא קטרת תועבה היא לי—“ ‘Why do I need so many sacrifices from you,’ God will say…‘do not bring me any more fake Minchas; it is a disgusting offering to me.’ ” Yirmiyahu[8] writes עלותיכם לא לרצון—“I do not want your offerings.” Hoshea[9] writes חסד חפצתי ולא זבח—“I want chesed, not sacrifices.” Amos[10] writes אם תעלו לי עלות ומנחתיכם לא ארצה—“If you offer Me burnt offerings and meal offerings, I will not want them.” How does this reconcile with the Torah?

      One explanation, following Rabbi Akiva, would note that the Torah discusses “My” sacrifices, whereas the Navi is commenting on “your” sacrifices. This points to the simple fact that things done properly bring good results, and things done improperly bring poor ones.

      And we might have thought that it will be as simple as that if not for a very inconvenient thing that Yirmiyahu writes elsewhere[11]: לא דברתי את אבותיכם ולא צויתים ביום הוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים על דברי עולה וזבח—“I did not speak to your fathers, and I did not command them on the day that I took them out of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This is a serious “What?” moment for people familiar with the book of Vayikra.

      The Radak writes (though, notably, he prefaces it to the effect of “some say,” distancing himself a bit from this approach) that because the sacrifices were commanded at Sinai, which was not on the day that we left Egypt, this Yirmiyahu is technically correct. The Rambam, in a long essay in Moreh Nevuchim, goes much farther, ending up at a claim that the Mishkan was just a compromise in response to the golden calf—God allowing Israel to follow the pagan practice of burnt offerings, as long as they do it in the prescribed way—which carries a hint of an idea that Temple service, ultimately, is not very important or necessary compared with other things commanded in the Torah.

      Abarbanel, arguing with the Radak, reaches a similar conclusion. He asks why it matters at all in what order commandments were given: the commandments given at Sinai are no less important than the ones given earlier. He, too, concludes that the difference is that the sacrifices are God “giving in” to the pagan desires of Israel. This view is likely predicated on a Midrash that the Mishkan atoned for the golden calf.

      The Shadal[12], on the other hand, strongly dislikes the attitude toward the Mishkan as an afterthought. To him, it is important that two of the “Mishkan parshiot” come before the golden calf in the Torah; and it seems to us, too, that even if the Torah does not necessarily reflect chronological order, the order “chosen” in the Torah carries meaning. The Shadal writes that far from being the cause of Temple service, the golden calf delays the construction of the Mishkan, which cannot begin until teshuvah is made.

      Rav Chizkiyahu ben Manoach, following the Midrash, interprets the scene as Moshe going up to ask God what exactly He meant at the burning bush about us serving Him on this mountain; the response is instructions for the construction of the Mishkan.

      In the end, we see sacrifices like we see many mitzvot: while it is important to do them even when we do not understand what they represent, their real importance often comes through as we do begin to understand what they represent and apply it in our lives. While it is true that mitzvot are a key to fulfilling our mission in life, if we stubbornly refuse to delve into their meaning and to learn life lessons from them, we can enter the class of people to which the Neviim were speaking: people who “go through the motions,” performing mitzvot to the detail, but still leading deeply problematic lives.

      There are many reasons why, when we daven, we often refer to God as אבינו. If we take it that in Hebrew, there is no such thing as a pure “grammatical coincidence,” this week, we would like to note that the middle of the word contains the root of בינה. Performing mitzvot is important—but it is not enough. We must strive to understand the lessons we can learn from them, and perhaps the language of our davening hints that there is something Godly in that.

      [1] Breishit 2:15

      [2] Breishit Rabbah 16:5

      [3] Shmot 3:12

      [4] Bamidbar 28:2

      [5] Breishit 15:8

      [6] Shmuel I 15:22

      [7] Yeshayahu 1:11-13

      [8] Yirmiyahu 6:20

      [9] Hoshea 6:6

      [10] Amos 5:22

      [11] Yirmiyahu 7:22

      [12] Shmuel David Luzzato, the great-grandson of the Ramchal’s brother

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