19 Mar 2015

Vayikra 5775: Inside Out

Vayikra 5775: Inside Out

The book of Vayikra, that we begin this week, is not at the top of the ‘easy-reading list’. Most of its content deals with rituals that have not been performed for over two-thousand years. The parasha details the various korbanot, or offerings, that were prescribed in Torah that were for many centuries the central aspect of our service to G-d. The word avoda – ‘service’ when used alone throughout rabbinic literature refers simply to the korbanot. We learn much about the dynamics of our relationship with G-d from them.


An interesting point about the korbanot is that, although one might draw the conclusion that G-d delights in the slaughter and offering of our domesticated livestock, a bit of study reveals that G-d wasn’t particularly interested in the ritual per se, but rather in what it was meant to help facilitate. It was a mode set to strengthen our conscious relationship with Him. Rambam writes in his Moreh Nebukhim[1] that the animal offerings were commanded with human nature and psychology in mind, and were aimed at gearing our primal drives towards the divine. As certain verses indicate, however, the practice itself was not inherently valuable. It was always ultimately about the relationship.


For I did not speak to your fathers, nor did I command them on the day that I took them out of Egypt on issues of offerings and slaughterings! Rather I charged them with this saying: ‘hear My voice, I will be your G-d and you will be My nation’. (Jer., 7:22-23)


And Samuel said [to King Saul] ‘Does G-d desire offerings as He wishes that you hear His word? Hearing is better than offerings, listening, than the fat of rams!’ (I Samuel, 15:22)


There were misunderstandings regarding the korbanot as there are with much of orthopraxy today. Many teach or have been taught, that the goal of the specific deeds in religious practice are established by G-d for their own sake; that the particular action is important to Him as opposed to how it affects us, and what it means to our relationship. The breakdown of service, therefore, is not in the failure of practice as much as in the development of apathy and mechanistic behaviour.


‘Why are your multitudes of offerings and slaughterings [relevant] to Me? I am filled with ram-offerings…I do not desire the blood of cows and sheep’. (Isaiah, 1:11)


To make this point, the prophet Malachi asks the people a simple question: Would you treat another human whom you respect, as you treat G-d?


When you present a lame or sick [animal] — it doesn’t matter! Just offer it to your governor: Will he accept you? Will he show you favour?! (Malachi, 1:8)


Of course, the rituals are important in that they offer the ability to bring our thoughts and feelings into action. But action alone misses the target. G-d focuses on the relationship as well as the value of listening and learning from Him. While we do not currently perform korbanot, the problem of korbanot still exists for many of us in much of our ritual. We often go through motions that are accompanied with little intent and meaning. And while much of this might be the occupational hazard of being naturally habitual, it is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that many of us have been taught to do things mechanically[2]. We are told what to do, but not necessarily what to think and what it means. While there is benefit in teaching procedure, teaching only procedure and leaving out elements of meaning and philosophy counteracts the benefit. When we know what to do but we don’t have a sense of why, we inevitably become mentally and emotionally detached.

The solutions to this are by no means easy. It is a question that has, in various forms and iterations, occupied the thoughts of many across generations. One can confidently say though, that fundamentals of the solution lie both in education and in relationships. Relationships are important because a healthy and meaningful relationship with G-d only draws from the experience of our healthy and meaningful relationships with other human beings. Education is important because knowledge and understanding empower us with self-confidence and dignity and they then fill a relationship with meaning and depth.


When we seek environments in which we hope to grow spiritually and connect with G-d, we should ensure that we can find both elements present. It should be an environment in which relationships are respected and celebrated and one in which knowledge and understanding are prominent parts of the culture. There may be other ingredients that are necessary for our spiritual lives to thrive, but warmth and enlightenment are its vital foundations.

[1] III:46

[2] It seems that this too was always an issue: “Because that people has approached Me with its mouth and honoured Me with its lips, but has kept its heart far from Me, and its worship of Me has been a commandment of men, learned by rote”. (Isaiah, 29:13)