This week’s parashah (Vayikra) is taken from Leviticus 1:1—5:26. Listen in as David opens up the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) and begins to unpack the korbanot (sacrificial) service of the Kohanim (priesthood).
Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, by clicking on the play button below, and reading along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashah:
Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1—5:26)
In this week’s Torah portion, we open the book of Vayikra and the parashah of the same name. Of course, the more common name of the book is Leviticus, referring to the Levites, and it is in this book that we are taught the teachings of the priesthood (the Kohanim) and the Levites regarding all sacrifices (korbanot) and maintenance of the sanctity of the Tabernacle (Miskhan).
And so we open Parashat Vayikra to the words of Leviticus 1:1:
וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃
“He called to Moses, and Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying.”
These first several words of the parashah are unique language in the Torah. Only in three places do we find Hashem “calling” to Moses (using “vayikra”): 1) at the Burning Bush; 2) at Mount Sinai before the giving of the Torah; and 3) here at the Tent of Meeting. Otherwise, the more common language that Hashem used in speaking to Moses throughout the Torah is: “and Hashem spoke to Moses saying” (“וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃”). Why was Hashem calling Moses? At a basic level, to teach the Torah to Moses. Up to this point, the two prior instances where Hashem “called” Moses (at the Burning Bush, and at Mount Sinai), were addressed to Moses exclusively, between Hashem and Moses exclusively. In this third instance, Hashem was about to teach Moses the requirements and procedures through which the Children of Israel could also connect with Hashem, through the sacrificial offerings: olah (burnt), minchah (meal), shelamim (peace), chatat (sin) and asham (guilt) offerings.
Let me take a pause here before proceeding. A very important question arises here: What is the point in learning about the korbanot (sacrificial) system if it has not been in use for nearly 2,000 years? The Temple has not been standing and as such, the Temple service – including the korbanot service – has ceased. But does this mean that it is irrelevant? An archaic and barbaric thing of the past? If we look at it this way, then we are missing the point completely. Like everything else in the Torah, everything that Hashem purposed and communicated has a much deeper significance then meets the human eye (as we will soon see).
We read further in Leviticus 1:2:
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יַקְרִ֥יב מִכֶּ֛ם קָרְבָּ֖ן לַֽיהוָ֑ה מִן־הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה מִן־הַבָּקָר֙ וּמִן־הַצֹּ֔אן תַּקְרִ֖יבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶֽם׃
“Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When a person from among you will bring an offering to Hashem: from the animals – from the cattle and from the flocks you shall bring your offering.”
The first word “ki” (“כִּֽי”) which means “when” doesn’t imply an obligation, but rather implies a voluntary offering. Furthermore, nowhere throughout this parashah does Hashem tell Moses to command the people to bring an offering. It is voluntary. If this is the case, then why bother with the sacrificial system at all? There is the view (Rambam, Abarbanel) that the Jews had become accustomed to sacrifices in Egypt. And to wean them from these idolatrous practices, Hashem tolerated the sacrifices but commanded that they be offered in one central sanctuary – in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later, in the more permanent Mikdash (Temple).
In the Haftarah reading, we read in Isaiah 43:23: “I did not burden you with meal-offering, nor did I weary you with frankincense.” Moreover, in Jeremiah 7:22-23, we read: “For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices; but this thing I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be My people; and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you.’”
Returning back to Leviticus 1:2, it is interesting that Hashem uses the word “adam” (“אָדָם”) – translated here as “a person”. However, this is not the best translation – “adam” means “a man, a human being”. Moreover, it means “Adam”, the first man. Later on in several places of the parashah, we find the use of the word “nefesh” (“soul”) instead of “adam” in reference to the person. So why “adam” here? Here at the opening of the parashah before diving into learning the korbanot system, we find a clue pointing toward the ultimate, universal goal of mankind – that of rectification going all the way back to the first man, Adam. Rectification of what? Sin.
Sin is what separates us from Hashem. Several weeks ago, we discussed what the korbanot is all about. To reiterate, “korbanot” translates as “sacrifices” – “korban” is the singular form, and the root of “korban” is “karav” – meaning “to draw near”. The korbanot system is the means through which the Children of Israel were to draw near to Hashem. In a parallel fashion for us today, it is up to us to draw into nearness with Hashem. And this can only be accomplished through “repentance” (“teshuvah”) – through an acknowledgement of the sin that separates us from Hashem.
The penalty of sin is death. In Ezekiel 18:4, we read: “the soul who sins shall die.” And in Romans 6:23, we read: “The wages of sin is death”. We are ultimately deserving of death because of our inherent sin. We cannot escape it in our lives or in this world. Whether in our past or in seeking to avoid it in our day-to-day affairs.
Returning back to the Book of Leviticus, Hashem – in His Abundant Mercy and Grace – consented to accept an animal, fowl or meal offering instead of the soul of the individual that had sinned. This is what would help the individual draw closer to Hashem. But how?
The korbanot system was intended to engrain in the mind of the individual bringing the offering a very graphic picture. It was an act of substitution, in particular, with respect to the animal offering. The individual was to internalize that what was about to happen to that animal should have been done to them. Only a select number of animal types could be offered – bull, sheep or goat, and fowl – based on who was bringing the offering, and then gender of the animal based on the type of offering. Moreover, for a poor person, a meal-offering was permitted.
The first offering discussed is the olah-offering (burnt-offering). It was an offering that involved the complete consuming of the sacrifice by fire, and it was intended to atone for sinful musings of the heart. The reason behind this is that since having improper thoughts is a sin of which only we and Hashem are aware, it was appropriate to achieve atonement through a sacrifice that is in its entirety a wholly consumed offering to Hashem. The offering was burnt in its entirety on the Altar, with the Kohanim not partaking in any of the meat (Leviticus 1:4).
As such, in the olah-offering service, special reflection was done to address the possible results of such sinful musings of the heart – namely, actions, speech and thought. As a result, Hashem commanded that when a person sinned he was to bring an offering, lean his hands on it (literally pushing the animal to the ground with force as an action of transference) – corresponding to the action component of his sin. He was then to confess his sin with his mouth – corresponding to the speech component. The innards and the kidneys (the organs corresponding to thought and desire), were then burned in the fire on the Altar, corresponding to the thought component. Moreover, the legs of the burnt offering were also burned, corresponding to the person’s hands and feet – which do all his work for him. Furthermore, Hashem commanded for the blood to be sprinkled on the lower corners of the Altar, corresponding to the “blood of his soul”. The entire korban service was intended for the person to contemplate on how he had sinned before Hashem with his body and with his soul, and that it would have been appropriate that his own blood be spilled out and his own body burnt, if not for Hashem’s grace and mercy, Who allowed a substitute and ransom (in the form of the animal) to stand in his place.
Next is the shelamim-offering, meaning “peace-offering”. Literally translating as “peaces” (“peace” in the plural), all of those involved in this offering – the person bringing the offering, the Kohanim and the Altar – all received a portion in it. In essence, the offering was intended to bring peace to the Altar, to the Kohanim and to the owner of the offering – ultimately, pointing to peace in the world. The service involved much of the same procedures as the olah-offering, except that the meat was eaten by all of those involved.
Next, the chatat-offering, meaning “sin-offering”, was brought to atone for unintentional sins. Note that it only covered “unintentional sins” – meaning those sins that were committed inadvertently. There was no korban for intentional sins, which could only be atoned for once a year on Yom Kippur. This is the basis for Isaiah 1:18, where it says: “Even if your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow; even if they are red as crimson, they will be like wool.” Our sins – whether unintentional or intentional – leave varying degrees of stains on the fabric of our souls.
The largest difference between the chatat-offering and the previous two offerings (olah, shelamim) was that the chatat-offering was the first of two offerings that addressed sin. The other difference was the blood service. Instead of throwing the blood against two corners of the Altar, the Kohen would walk up the ramp and apply the blood with his finger to the four horns on top of the Altar. For the man who had sinned looked on, this service was intended to convict in his mind an impetus to rise higher, to elevate his soul high above the sinful nature of this world.
Finally, there is the asham-offering, meaning the ”guilt-offering”. There is some confusion here as to how this is differentiated from the sin-offering. The simplest way to explain it is that for the specific cases mentioned in Leviticus 5 (e.g. false oath, thievery), they mostly reflect intentional sins – remember sin-offerings only covered unintentional sins. As such, these were special intentional cases that were covered by an asham-offering, which for the more severe cases, involved not only a korban, but also additional compensation to the party that the offense had been committed against.
Remember, this is only a handful of the totality of offerings – the others aren’t covered in this week’s parashah. They include the thanks-offering, the Nazirite-offering, firstborn-offering, tithe-offering, and the pesach-offering – all of which further varied in detail and procedure.
I really skimmed over many of the details pertaining to the offerings covered in this parashah. This is an intensely complex subject matter that in my humble view demands a better understanding and comprehension. Nevertheless, my point in bringing up the details about these offerings is this – they served a tangible purpose when they were in existence, and they still serve a purpose if we understand how to connect with them today. As I pointed out earlier, the root word of “korban” is “karav” meaning “to draw near”. Draw near to whom? To Hashem. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, in Romans 12:1-2 wrote: “I exhort you, therefore, brothers, in view of God’s mercies, to offer yourselves as a sacrifice, living and set apart for God. This will please him; it is the logical ‘Temple worship’ for you. In other words, do not let yourselves be conformed to the standards of this world. Instead, keep letting yourselves be transformed by the renewing of your minds; so that you will know what God wants and will agree that what he wants is good, satisfying and able to succeed.”
Reiterating Paul’s words: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice” – it is through our bodies that our souls become tarnished by the sin of this world. We must die to our sinful nature, to self, to our egos. We must renew our minds – the seat of every thought, image, word and sensation that we have inherited and allowed access to our souls through our eyes, ears, mouths, noses and hands.
By becoming a living sacrifice, we replicate our Messiah Yeshua, who gave up his own life as an act of atonement. He became like the animal of slaughter – he became our perfect substitution. He – a perfect and unblemished korban – took on himself our sins so that Hashem’s Strict Attribute of Justice would be appeased, as it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made this sinless man be a sin offering on our behalf, so that in union with him we might fully share in God’s righteousness.” May we learn from his example! Yeshua showed us the true meaning of what it means to draw near to Hashem. It is through self-sacrifice, dying to our self, becoming a living sacrifice, unadulterated by the sinful throes of this world. Think in this light what it means to be sons of Hashem, as it says in Ephesians 1:5-6: “He determined in advance that through Yeshua the Messiah we would be His sons, in keeping with His pleasure and His purpose, so that we would bring Him praise, commensurate with the glory of the grace He gave us through the Beloved One.” If we learn to truly replicate Yeshua, will this not lead us closer to the ultimate goal of rectification, going all the way back to the first man, Adam?
Let’s go further. Interestingly, for the olah-offering (burnt) and the shelamim-offering (peace), we are told that the services were carried out by the “sons of Aaron, the Kohanim” or the “Kohen” (priest). Yet, when we get to the chatat-offering (sin), we see the term “the Anointed Kohen” (“הַכֹּהֵ֥ן הַמָּשִׁ֖יחַ”) used in a unique manner. We read in Leviticus 4:3: “If the Anointed Kohen will sin, to the guilt of the people; for his sin that he committed he shall offer a bull, a young male of cattle, unblemished, to Hashem as a sin-offering.”
The “Anointed Kohen” is just another name for the High Priest (Kohen Gadol), who was responsible for effecting atonement through his role in the korban service, and through whom the entire community was atoned. Yet, it is interesting that the word “anointed” (“mashiach”) is used here. In Hebrews 4:14-15, we read: “Therefore, since we have a great Kohen Gadol who has ascended into heaven, Yeshua the son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a Kohen Gadol who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.” What better token of atonement and merit than through Yeshua. Yeshua, through his mighty act of self-sacrifice, elevated himself to Kohen Gadol in the Heavenly Places, the perfect Kohen Gadol, providing atonement for us, whose merit we may benefit from!
The korbanot system has not been practiced for 2,000 years. Is that a good thing? Maybe or maybe not. The reality is that we have become very complacent with respect to sin such that we have lost sight of the severity of our sinful actions. The same applies to our connection through Yeshua. If we don’t truly appreciate what he accomplished for us, if we don’t replicate his example in our lives, if we don’t die to our flesh as he did in our pursuit of drawing closer to Hashem, then his death was pointless, as Paul says in Galatians 2:17-21: “But if, in seeking to be declared righteous by God through our union with the Messiah, we ourselves are indeed found to be sinners, then is the Messiah an aider and abettor of sin? Heaven forbid! Indeed, if I build up again the legalistic bondage which I destroyed, I really do make myself a transgressor. For it was through letting the Torah speak for itself that I died to its traditional legalistic misinterpretations, so that I might live in direct relationship with God. When the Messiah was executed on the stake as a criminal, I was too; so that my proud ego no longer lives. But the Messiah lives in me, and the life I now live in my body I live by the same trusting faithfulness that the Son of God had, who loved me and gave himself up for me. I do not reject God’s gracious gift; for if the way in which one attains righteousness is through legalism, then the Messiah’s death was pointless.” And we do him a complete disservice and disgrace in claiming merit through his name.
Remember, when an individual brought an offering to the Mishkan or the Mikdash and went through the experience of witnessing an innocent animal get slaughtered in their place, and they fully connected and internalized the spiritual message – that the inadvertent sin that was committed, regardless of how minimal it seemed in comparison to an intentional sin – caused a blemish on the soul that was deserving of death, they received atonement for their sin and drew closer to God.
But this is only if they recognized that they missed the mark, and approached with sincerity, in shame, to return back to Hashem – to connect once again with their Heavenly Father. Think of it, if a person lived a righteous life, completely in oneness with Hashem, there would be no need to offer the chatat- or asham-offerings. The need for the korbanot system in dealing with sins would be unnecessary. That is the ultimate goal, and that is what we unlock in our connection through Yeshua.
Therefore, it is vital that we connect to the essence of the korbanot service so that we can better appreciate what Messiah Yeshua did for us through his death. May we be reminded of this each and every day as we seek to rectify the damage in our lives and in this world going all the way back to the first man, to Adam. In this light, may we be reminded of the words of Paul – to offer ourselves as a sacrifice, living and set apart for God, to not let ourselves be conformed to the standards of this world, but instead to keep letting ourselves be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Amen.