VA-YIKRA … The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: “Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them:”
And so we begin our reading of the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. Overall, this book is not as dramatic as the stories of Genesis, or as profound as the statutes and directives of the Book of Exodus. In fact, the majority of this book is more or less a cookbook … recipes for sacrifices that formed the core of the religious/spiritual life of our earliest days as a people. In the day of the Tent of Meeting, when one wanted to pray, they did not get dressed in their finest and look for a SHULE with friendly people and a tasty KIDDUSH. No, in those days you put a leash on your cow or goat or sheep and brought it to the Tent of Meeting to be offered up as a gift to God.
My, how far we have come!
Or, after experiencing the Samaritan Passover Sacrifice up front and personal many years ago, I have to ask: Have we?!
Conceptually (though far from a vegetarian, I, too, have concerns regarding the taking of a life being considered a gift!) there is something very powerful embedded in the sacrificial cult that is often lost in more modern forms of prayer: Passion … for God and for the then prayerful moment at hand.
In the prayer book that we use at Congregation Anshei Israel (SIDDUR HADASH), there is a meditation found in our recitation of MUSAF (page 361):
We recall with reverence the piety of our ancestors who, in ancient times, brought their Sabbath offering to the Temple in Jerusalem. From their meager supply of cattle and grain, they offered their best in the service of God.
As we worship in this Shabbat, joining in prayer, praise and reflection, may we be inspired by the recollection of these ancient sacrificial offerings to devote our own resources and energies to serving God’s will.
What that meditation reminds us of is that no matter how hard we try, our prayer is but a reflection of the form and function of the sacrificial cult. That does not mean that our moments do not have the potential of lifting us up spiritually, or moving us to seek higher levels of holiness in our lives. What it means is that we are, at best, one step removed from offering the essence of our being to that which is greater than ourselves.
Each year, when we begin our reading of Leviticus, I pause for a moment and remind myself how important it is to reclaim these verses and apply them as a standard for our spiritual life today. I often joke that when it comes to the 21st century American synagogue: Goldstein comes to pray … everyone else comes to talk to Goldstein. Reading the book of Leviticus can transform us into Goldsteins, enable us to draw that much closer to The Holy One Who Brings Blessing, find our religious/spiritual lives “that much more,” and come closer to offering the essence of our being to that which is greater than ourselves.
It all depends on how we wish to read the verses …and whether we will open ourselves up to what they can mean to, and for, us.