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Parashat Vayikra - Shabbat Hahodesh
Rosh Hodesh Nisan

March 21, 2015 – 1 Nisan 5775

Annual (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26): Etz Hayim p. 585; Hertz p. 410
Triennial (Leviticus 3:1 – 4:26): Etz Hayim p. 592; Hertz p. 415
Second Sefer (Numbers 28:9-15): Etz Hayim p. 930; Hertz p. 695
Third Sefer (Exodus 12:1-20): Etz Hayim p. 380, Hertz p. 253
Haftarah (Ezekiel 45:16-46:18):  Etz Hayim p. 1291; Hertz p. 1001

 Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

With the Mishkan complete, God explains the sacrificial system to Moses. The first type of sacrifice is the burnt (
olah) offering, which is an animal of varying expense and not eaten. The grain (minha) offering is even less expensive. The well-being (zevach) offering, by contrast, is mostly eaten by the priests and the Israelite who donated the animal. Finally, the portion introduces the purification (hattat) offerings for unintentional sins and sins of omission, as well as reparation (asham) offerings, which are brought for sins against the Sanctuary, for deceit with false oaths and for contingency.

These offerings are treated with great care by the ancient priests and Levites, who provide the ritual conduit between the people and God. The ceremonies surrounding the offerings are executed with precision. When executed properly, these actions please God greatly.

Theme #1: Grateful Dead (Animals)

If his offering is a sacrifice of well-being -- if he offers of the herd, whether a male or a female, he shall bring before the Lord one without blemish. (Leviticus 3:1)

While some sacrifices are offered with a sense of urgency, others are brought with a sense of contentment and gratitude.

In [Psalm 36], the Temple is seen as a place of refuge from the harshness of ordinary life. In it, God shares his food with his worshippers; the reference is to the shared offerings in which the congregation and God participated in a common meal (Leviticus 3).  -- Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion

Sacrificial animals are slaughtered primarily to provide a meal for the god, not for humans. Lay people receive flesh from only one type of sacrifice, the well-being offering, as a special dispensation. -- David P. Wright, “The Study of Ritual in the Hebrew Bible”, from The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship, Frederick E. Greenspahn, ed.

The rendering “sacrifice of well-being” is an educated guess: it too connects the term with shalom in the broader sense of “wholeness, happiness, health.” In the Bible, the word has these meanings more often than that of “peace” -- and it fits the festive character of the sacrifice. -- Bernard J. Bamberger from The Torah: A Commentary

Questions for Discussion:

Levenson sees the well-being offering as a vehicle through which God and humanity can share food with one another. To what extent does our relationship with God involve sharing? Is this a unique feature of the sacrificial system that cannot be replicated today? Or is it something that we can replicate through prayer and learning? How do we define "sharing" between God and humanity today?

Wright notes that the "sharing" between God and humanity referenced by Levenson is something unique to the well-being offering. What purpose might God have to set aside one sacrifice that is shared? What does this exception say about the rule? Is this exception meant to assuage concerns about the purpose of these offerings? While we acknowledge that the relationship between God and Israel is not an equal one, does this gesture make a difference in how we see God?

Bamberger analyzes the word used for the well-being offering as describing a scene of joy and contentment. What are the most common ways for us to celebrate a sense of satisfaction in our lives? Are such celebrations meaningful? Must they be meaningful for them to be festive? What are some uniquely modern ways for us to add meaning to the happiest moments?

Theme #2: Oops, We Did It Again

Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the Lord's commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them ... (Leviticus 4:2)

While repentance is a hallmark of Jewish ritual life, proper procedures must be followed for such apologies to be effective.

The hattat decontaminates the sanctuary, and apparently individuals as well, and so is extraordinarily important in Israelite cultic thinking and practice. … The High Priest’s ritual is more elaborate that those that follow, as befits the representative of the community. Once his ritual is complete, we encounter for the other parties the refrain “and he/they shall be granted-pardon.” Central to the hattat offering is the use of its blood as a detergent to absorb and purify the pollution that has accrued in the sanctuary. As a prime signifier of life, it will have this function a number of times in the Torah. -- Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

[There is] enormous responsibility on the public: If the public does not act properly, the High Priest is the one who bears the blame. On the other hand, responsibility is also placed on the High Priest: It is his duty to lead the people, to know to warn them so that they not sin. A clear reciprocal message is conveyed here: There is not and cannot be a severance between the people and their spiritual leaders. Each are integrally bound with the other, one side obliged to give guidance and direction, the other obliged to have the sense to avoid evil. -- Joseph Agur, “Sinning Unwittingly,” from A Divinely Given Torah in our Day and Age, Volume II

This begins a lengthy section on what to do when people sin by mistake: a priest, the entire community, a leader, or an individual. Humans make mistakes. But even a sin that is committed by mistake requires some act of atonement. People still feel guilty when they do harm, even if they meant no harm, and so this provides a mechanism for purging the guilt and putting the act in the past. Now, in the absence of sacrifice, other means of atonement have risen in importance. Notably, the Day of Atonement has become the most sacred and widely observed holiday; whereas, in the Torah, Passover stands out as the first and foremost of the holidays. -- Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Questions for Discussion:

Fox tells us that the guilt offering, once complete, purifies both place and individual people. When we feel incomplete in our lives, what do we do to purge ourselves of the negativity that engulfs us? What do we do to take away negativity associated with a particular location? Are some methods more effective than others?

Agur comments on the link between the Israelites and the High Priest, noting that each entity is responsible for the other. In what cases, if any, does this relationship still exist between leaders and followers? Do we feel responsible for making sure that our leaders are in the position to succeed? And are our leaders truly invested in our success?

Friedman says that Yom Kippur has superseded Passover in regard to widespread Jewish observance. Whereas Yom Kippur centers on our personal behavior, Passover reflects a communal story. Is it problematic that Yom Kippur has become the most sacred of days (other than Shabbat)? Or is this a necessary outgrowth of the lack of a sacrificial system? Could Passover retain its primary position if we relate the story more to personal behavior?

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