The third book of the Bible begins this week just as we begin the new month of Adar Bet. Leviticus is also known as Torat Cohanim- the Torah of the Priests or the Instructions for the Priests. Throughout this book of the Bible the details of priestly holy work are described. The sacrifices that the children of Israel are to bring to the sanctuary are enumerated. The priesthood is a special caste. Cohanim are descendants of Aaron. And they have special duties to ensure that God and the people are in sync.
In this week’s portion we get the overview of the basic sacrifices that help to keep the relationship between the individual Israelite and God open. Now that the Tent of Meeting is furnished set-up and dedicated and God’s glorious cloud has descended from on High taking up residence among the people, the regular daily worship and thanksgiving to God can commence.
That ancient worship consisted of bringing different kinds of sacrifices to the altar of God. Delivered to the priests, the Israelite brought a set amount to expiate sin, remove guilt, offer thanksgiving or ask for abundance. The sacrifice was a prescribed amount. There was a formula to follow. This week’s portion describes the various formulas for these offerings.
Today we don’t bring things to sacrifice to God on an altar. No pigeons or handfuls of grain. No wine libations poured on the altar or young lambs or bulls. The ancients felt that God preferred the sweet smell of roasted meat or incense on the altar and that would stir the Deity to action: forgiving sin or perhaps granting favor. The Torah even tells us that sweet smell (reyach nichoach) helps to calm God’s anger. Moses and Aaron offered sacrifices to God after the incident of the Golden Calf and after the breaking of the tablets. I like a Barbeque as much as the next person but it seems to me that it is better suited to a summer afternoon than trying to atone for a sin.
So how do we interpret Leviticus today and these different kinds of prescribed offerings that marked the ancient forerunner of Judaism? As I hope you know when the Temple was destroyed finally in the year 70 by the Romans this is when Judaism really came into being. This was when our ancestors fully replaced and retooled the ancient Israelite religion from a sacrificial cult into something we recognize today-a system of prayer and action to elevate the soul and the mind and to transform the individual and society for the better.
We human beings still have the need to be forgiven from our errors and failings. We still need to acknowledge and give thanks for special times and moments in our lives. These concepts and points help us manage our emotions and our psyches and ourselves. In this regard the brilliance of the ancient system still shines. But how we seek forgiveness or offer thanksgiving is what has changed. With an ancient formula it might have actually been easier. You know exactly what to do. But in our day and time what do you do?
How do you seek atonement? How do you offer thanksgiving? How do you seek out and build a relationship with the Divine? It takes effort. It doesn’t just happen. Today we use prayer and tzedakah and teshuvah as the components of our atonement and our thanksgiving. We sponsor an oneg to celebrate a birthday. We pray to God for forgiveness and also seek it from those we harmed.
But we also work hard at changing our actions and changing the very nature of our personhood. And this is the most difficult part of the process. Real change takes times. And so patience must be part of your quotient as you journey in this relationship with the Holy One of Blessing: patience for yourself and for others as they do their best to transform and heal.