This week, we begin "Vayikra," the first book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. This section of the Torah is filled with many fascinating and important Torah concepts that we can relate to, including the laws of lashon hara (the prohibitions against speaking ill of others), kashrut (keeping kosher) and the well-known phrase: "Love your fellow as yourself."
One concept in this week's parsha that some of us have difficulty understanding is that of korbanot (animal sacrifices) that were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. You might ask, "How would the ritual sacrifice of an animal on the Temple altar help me atone for my inadvertent sins?"
Let's start at the beginning. The very beginning. Sages tell us that during creation of the universe, Adam and Eve were created last to teach us the nobility of man as well as humility.
How does creation teach us these two concepts? Though it may not be politically correct, in Judaism, all things are not created equal. We are taught that there is a hierarchy of creation, and in it, man reigns supreme. God first created inanimate objects, followed by plant life, animals and, finally, man. Only mankind was created in the Almighty's image and only man was given a divine mandate by God. Only man has the ability to choose freely between good and evil. Only man was put on this world to study the Torah and fulfill God's commandments.
By serving the Almighty in this way, we perfect our souls, control our base instincts and elevate even mundane tasks into holy ones. Thus, mankind was created last in order to show us that all of creation was prepared for us -- and is here to enable us to accomplish our noble purpose of serving the Almighty. If, on the other hand, we don't live up to our potential and don't fulfill our divine responsibilities, then we become in a sense less than the animals.
Animal sacrifice is a reminder that we are not equal, that we are elevated above all creatures and that we need to behave in a way that befits our status. Consequently, the act of sacrifice should bring us to repentance and regret.
The feelings of compassion we have for the animal being sacrificed remind us of our special role and can motivate us to repair the spiritual damage our actions have caused. This can be the noblest of all human endeavors, for only mankind can make a conscious decision to change himself and not act solely on instinct. Only man has the ability to break bad habits, change one's attitudes, responses, and behaviors and thus elevate himself.
Furthermore, the concept of sacrifice becomes even clearer when we look at the actual translation and mistranslation of the word "korban." Korban really has little to do with sacrifice and much more to do with the Hebrew word karov (to be close). One didn't just pay for the animal, sacrifice it and expect to be absolved. Part of the process of getting closer to God also included viduy (confession), sacrifice and self-examination.
This teaches us an important practical lesson: Sometimes people feel they have to sacrifice to live a religious life. In fact, the Almighty doesn't expect us to sacrifice but rather wants us to make the right choices to bring us closer to Him.
People don't say, "I sacrificed watching the ballgame to see a beautiful sunset." Rather they say, "I chose the sunset and as a consequence, I didn't see the ballgame." So, too, we shouldn't say, "I sacrificed going shopping to keep Shabbat," but rather, "I chose to be close to God by observing Shabbat, and the consequence was that I didn't go shopping."
Studying about korbanot can help us remember our nobility and purpose in this world, while helping us re-prioritize so that we don't "sacrifice" to serve God but attempt to come close to Him with joy instead.
May we be successful!