By Rabbi Lawrence M. Pinsker
Leviticus, the very center of the Torah scroll, details ancient Jewish practices of sacrifice, ritual and teshuvah (“atonement”). It asks us how much we are prepared to give up in order to show we truly love.
The lists of animal and vegetable sacrifices are mere distraction. Scholars and commentators honor them as a way to manage destructive guilt and blame and lead people to live healthier, productive and connected lives. In the Babylonian Talmud and other sources we read about how rituals and sacrifices enabled people to transcend personal shortcomings. For example: “When Rav Sheshet observed a fast, after prayers he would say: ‘Master of Worlds, You know that when the Temple was standing, a person would sin and then bring a sacrifice; the only parts that were offered would be the fat and the blood — and they would be forgiven their sin. … Now I have observed a fast and my fat and blood have been diminished. May it be Your will that my fat and blood which were diminished shall be as if I had offered them before You on the altar. May You accept me!’” (B. Talmud, M. Berachot 17a)
Jews publicly managed their narcissistic excesses and failures to fulfill societal obligations by giving away food. Just saying “I’m sorry” wasn’t enough to fix damaged love, respect and loyalty. The offerings followed changes in behavior: I give what sustains life as a pledge that I have changed.
Sadly, we’ve been misled because we use the word “sacrifice” to translate the Hebrew word korban. A korban is an act that brings us nearer to God. We give up or repurpose things we value in order to get closer to an ideal. We connect, diminishing the distance between the ideal and the real. We fix what we got wrong and heal the rift between us and the ones we have hurt.
The Temple was the most practical expression of both tikkun atzmi — healing the broken self — and also of tikkun olam — healing the broken world. Today we practice modest forms of those ancient offerings: meals and consolation for mourners; gifts and personal notes saying we’re sorry; presents marking anniversaries, birthdays and years of service; and charitable contributions supporting those who sustain our communities, relieve suffering and rectify catastrophe.
Next time, read Leviticus as a book of love and faith in our ability to do better with ourselves and with how we treat each other.
Rabbi Lawrence M. Pinsker is currently serving Adat Chaim Synagogue in Owings Mills.