The beginning of Leviticus, Vayikra, describes the central form of biblical worship: animal sacrifices, wine libations and meal offerings. There are different sacrifices for different communications. It is easy to get lost in the blood, animal fat and different blemishes. The priesthood, their judgments and absolute authority seem far away and distant to our life.
The p’shat/surface meaning of a text was the key necessary to unlock the deeper meaning. In this case, what exactly are all these sacrifices necessary for?
I have come to appreciate the desire of the Israelites to create a connection with G-d. How we create our connection today would be very different from our biblical ancestors. On the other hand, our desire to have a healthy life, filled with purpose and meaning, connecting to others around us and G-d, links us directly to our ancestors.
Embedded in this first chapter is the human need to find a way to atone for times we missed the mark. What could be more contemporary in today’s world? The biblical authors were clear that human beings make human mistakes. We are responsible for the consequences of what we did and we have the ability to learn from those mistakes, and in so doing, become a better person. The G-d of Leviticus was a forgiving G-d who understood the human ability to learn and grow.
In our contemporary world, where our very actions and words can haunt us from the day we are born, when, how and for what are we forgiven? When must we bear the mark of Cain for the rest of our life, and when can that mark propel us into the sacred life we always wanted?
One of my favorite folktales is about a king who loved diamonds — the bigger, the better. One day he was handed the most beautiful diamond in the world. It was large, shining, clear. He slowly turned the diamond around in his hand, appreciating every side of the diamond even more than the last.
His hand was turning the diamond to the very last side, when all of sudden he screamed. For there in the middle of the last side of the diamond was a scratch. The king called all his wise people and all his jewelers. He offered absurd amounts of money to fix the diamond. After everyone he knew had failed, an old man dressed in rags walked in, declaring he could fix the diamond.
The following week the old man walked in with the diamond. The king took it, appreciating the beautiful aspects. When he got to the last panel he turned the diamond and saw engraved all around the scratch a beautiful rose.
We all have our scratches, the people we have hurt, the offensive things we have said and the disgusting habits we inherited. The authors of Leviticus did not expect us to be perfect diamonds, but rather people who recognize our scratches, work to prevent new ones from appearing and then create a sacred rose because we learned from our mistakes, not trying to cover them up. Only then would the smell of our sacrifice be pleasing to G-d.
Keyn yehi ratzon. May it be so.
Rabbi Sonya Starr is spiritual leader at Columbia Jewish Congregation.