By Rabbi Lia Bass
I love the Book of Leviticus. It contains many important lessons about the power of community, and pathways for encountering the Divine that can inform our contemporary life.
Leviticus begins with seven chapters describing sacrifices, followed by the death of Aaron’s two older sons. It can seem irrelevant to our modern sensibilities, with its detailed descriptions of sacrifices and laws that are in stark opposition to the way most of us believe and practice our Judaism.
Yet this is a book that is focused on the relationship between God and the people of Israel, and the language of the offerings provides a path for us to understand that connection. The Hebrew word offering/sacrifice is korban, from the root that means “to come close.” A sacrifice is the way that our ancestors found to come close to God, to have a relationship with God and to express their spirituality.
The reading starts by explaining the isheh, or gift offerings, such as the olah (whole offering), minchah (gift offering) and the zevah hashlamim (the well-being offering). These are followed by the hattat (purification ritual), and asham (reparation ritual).
The isheh offerings are gifts that the Israelites would bring as an expression of love and awe toward the Eternal, a symbol of gratitude for all they received. The hattat was a ritual to purify the sanctuary from the inadvertent sins of the Israelites, and the asham was a ritual of reparation for involuntary misuse of sanctuary property, or against another person.
I love the idea that in approaching the Holy One, the people of Israel had a clear picture of the actions they must take, and the gifts that should be brought. A sacrifice, as described in the Torah portion, is a path to a relationship. How striking it is that the people of Israel knew exactly what to bring for every infraction. They did not have to guess or imagine. I would love be so certain what to give, and when to give it, as an expression of care for the people I love.
By choosing to start the book of Leviticus with a description of the offerings that were to be brought, the authors of the Torah want to impart in us a powerful lesson: The meeting of human and divine, be it through a sacrifice, be it through instruction, brings out the power of open relationship and communication. These values were found in the structure of the encounter. Part of the offering was given to the Holy One, the people who brought them ate from them and the priests did as well.
We can open our souls to the potential of this annual reading of the offerings, connecting with its inner message: The offerings create community, making us stronger, more complete, because of the sharing of everyone’s unique gifts. Through meeting, through sharing, we can be complete, we can be peaceful.
Rabbi Lia Bass is the founder of Jewish Institute for Lifelong Learning & Innovation, based in Rockville.