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Torah Sparks

March 24, 2007 – 5 Nisan 5767

Annual: Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 585; Hertz p. 410)
Triennial: Leviticus 4:27 – 5:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 599; Hertz p. 419)
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21-44:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 607; Hertz p. 424)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Vayikra – the book of Leviticus – begins with the assumption that there will be a system of sacrifice as a means of religious expression, and it proceeds to outline the particulars of that system. The third book of the Torah does not invite us to discuss the pros and cons of using sacrifice to worship. This set of assumptions requires some mental adjustments on our part as we approach the text.

The following categories of sacrifices are outlined in this week’s parashah:

  1. A person may bring an olah (burnt-offering) voluntarily to atone for personal neglect of one or more positive commandments. This sacrifice could involve a bull, a sheep, a goat, two turtledoves, or two pigeons.
  2. The minhah was a meal-offering. It was brought individually by someone who lacked the means to bring an animal as a sacrifice. There were also communal minhah offerings.
  3. The korban sh’lamim essentially was a sacred meal, since the donor of this sacrifice had the opportunity to eat some of it. A significant portion also was given to the kohanim to consume; the rest was burned on the altar.
  4. The hattat (sin-offering) was brought in search of atonement for sins committed accidentally or unknowingly.
  5. The asham (guilt-offering) was a ram sacrificed to make amends for denial of wrongdoing, or to seek forgiveness for an ambiguous offense.

Issue #1: Participation at Varying Economic Levels

It is readily apparent that different sacrifices were available to be offered by people of different economic means. The variety ofoptions from cattle, which were rather pricey, to less costly birds, to still less expensive grains demonstrates that sacrifices were not reserved so only the wealthy could express themselves religiously. Rather, people at every rung of the economic ladder should have the opportunity to develop a relationship with God.

In parashat Ki Tissa we read the following directive:

Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord’s offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering as expiation for your persons. (Exodus 30:14-15)

What lessons can we learn for our congregations, today, based on these directives and the clear accommodation within the sacrificial system for all people, regardless of how much money they might have? How can we encourage participation by Jews at all economic levels in the programming at our synagogues today? We often speak, colloquially, of a person “making a sacrifice” through activities and donation of time to a cause. What are some of the things that a synagogue can do to involve both the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy?

Issue #2: Penitence and Forgiveness

Consider the following passage from Maimonides (Laws Concerning Repentance, 7:4):

Let not the penitent suppose that he is kept far away from the degree attained by the righteous because of the iniquities and sins that he has committed. This is not so. He is beloved by the Creator, desired by Him, as if he had never sinned. Moreover, his reward is great; since, though having tasted sin, he renounced it and overcame his evil passion. The sages say, “Where penitents stand, the completely righteous cannot stand.” This means that the degree attained by penitents is higher than that of those who had never sinned, the reason being that the former have had to put forth a greater effort to subdue their passions than the latter.

We tend to have long memories for the sins of others. Maimonides clearly wants us to understand that a reformed now-former sinner is to be viewed with the utmost respect. In keeping with this teaching, what are some of the habits that we as a society ought to reconsider in order to avoid typecasting people unfairly? And, because the habits of society are unlikely to change overnight, what can we as individuals do to further these worthy aims?

The political season is already heating up; does Maimonides’ position provide us with a better lens to look at the personal background of those running for office? Are their past actions so grievous that they should not be forgiven?

Issue #3: Expressions of Thanks

As we will see more clearly in next week’s parashah, one form of the korban sh’lamim was a sacrifice of thanksgiving. (See Leviticus 7:11.) What avenues are available today for Jews to express their thanksgiving within the Jewish community? Are these comparable to the offering of a sacrifice?

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