Growing up, I related to the book of Leviticus and its sacrificial cult with indifference (what’s this got to do with me?) or embarrassment (does God really need us to kill animals, sprinkle their blood and burn their carcasses for ritual purposes?). But over time, I’ve learned to love the middle book of the Torah. Here are two strategies that have made living with Leviticus a rich experience.
First, I learned to leave the indifference and embarrassment behind and provide my ancestors with the same openness, respect and benefit of the doubt that I would lend to the study of any other ancient culture. That opened doors.
Unlike some ancient Near Eastern cultures, the Israelites did not believe that their sacrifices fed the gods. Rather, the sacrifices were designed to stay in right relationship with the one God. (The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root k-r-b, which means to “draw near.”) Our ancestors knew that the power of Temple ritual lies in its symbolic and metaphoric character, much the way ritual functions for us today. Once I knew what I was looking for in the symbols — principles, ethics and the embodiment of a relationship with God — Leviticus became a different book.
Last week and this week, we read about the asham, or guilt sacrifice. Generally, guilt results from purposefully wrong behavior, but the asham sacrifice atoned for unintentional acts, mostly to do with incorrectly performing the Temple rites due to ignorance or simply making a mistake. Such sins introduced ritual impurity in a “purity zone,” often around the altar. Although the act was unintended, the service to God was compromised, and that required acknowledgment and repair.
The asham sacrifice gave the individual and the community a place to deal with a harsh aspect of life. Often people act with the best of intentions, but end up in the place of “no good deed goes unpunished.”
A baseball player hits a ball into the stands, injuring a spectator. One person gets the promotion, and another deserving worker is slighted. Or in cases analogous to ours in the Torah, a person doesn’t know what they don’t know — a teacher misunderstands the lesson and teaches students the wrong information. Or makes a mistake — someone helps an infirm elder, but slips and causes the senior to fall.
In these circumstances, that I wasn’t at fault or that I should have avoided an error is not the most important factor. Rather, the world is not as it should be — “I played a part and I feel terrible about it.” Other than a visit to a therapist, there is no place in our society to acknowledge one’s deep regret.
In these cases, a ritual would serve us well, similar to the way a funeral is important for mourners. We are comforted when our suffering is publicly acknowledged and validated. And whether or not we think this is part of a divine plan, a ritual brings God into our lives at the moment when the perspective of transcendence is most important.
I wish we had a ritual today like the asham sacrifice of our “primitive” ancestors.
A second strategy for living with Leviticus concerns prayer, specifically Musaf, the repetition of the Amidah prayer that follows the Torah reading at Shabbat morning services. The prayers envision the restoration of the Temple sacrifices detailed in Leviticus, a sentiment I do not share. Usually I can find a metaphorical way to understand and pray the traditional prayers that do not resonate with my beliefs, but after 15 years of living in Jerusalem near Jews who would tear down the Dome of the Rock in order to rebuild the Temple and reinstitute animal sacrifice, I can’t even say these prayers.
My solution is to honor the tradition by taking on sacrifice in general and making it the subject of my personal prayer. Now it’s a favorite part of the service, a fitting end to a session of spiritual practice.
For much of the Shabbat morning prayers, I’m cultivating gratitude. I say thanks for the things I take for granted — food to eat, air to breathe, a world of unfathomable beauty, a supportive community, Torah and mitzvot to guide me. I remember how inexplicably lucky I am to have married my partner. I find that place of limitless joy in my heart.
Now it’s natural to respond: What am I willing to give? What will I sacrifice for other people, for the Jewish people, for the planet — in short, for God?
Whatever the answer in a given week, when I act from the place of gratitude it feels just like Elton John sings: “It’s no sacrifice at all.”
Rabbi Mike Comins is the founder of TorahTrek — The Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality (torahtrek.org) and the author of “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” and “A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism.”