This week we begin reading the third book, Vayikra (Leviticus) of the five books of Moses. The last few Torah portions of Shemot (Exodus) elaborated on the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The book of Vayikra focuses on the many animal offerings that were given by the Jewish people in their service to G-d and for atonement in the Mishkan and later in the Beit Hamikdash (the Holy Temple) in Jerusalem.
It is often a struggle of animal rights groups and many in the modern era to relate to the Torah Portions referring to the animal offerings. I once read something to the effect that in the days of old, the idea of Jews offering animal sacrifices was understood by all, as all nations were offering sacrifices. Their issue with the Jews then was that we cared for the elderly and the infirm, the ones they could not see that they served a purpose in life and society. Judaism however, preached that every individual has a soul and a purpose and is precious to G-d. Today, however, this has flipped. Every society cares for the elderly and the infirm. It is now the idea of animal sacrifices that many struggle with.
The Torah states in this week’s Parsha: When a man (adam) will bring an offering from among you to G‑d, from the animals, from the cattle or from the flock shall you bring your offering. (Leviticus 1:2)
Clearly, the language here is rather strange. In fact, most translators have edited the text to read more smoothly: “When a man among you will bring an offering,” an improvement in the flow of the verse.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in his classic Likkutei Torah, insists however that the Torah’s syntax is deliberate. “When a man will bring an offering”— i.e., he will want to come closer to G‑d (the root of the word korban is karav, “to come close”), then the offering must come “from you.”
A foundation of Judaism is that each of us has two inclinations, a good advocate and a selfish advocate. Chassidic mysticism explains that at the core of every individual is two actual souls, an animal soul and a G-dly soul. The animal soul tends to our body with its physical needs and desires. The G-dly soul is the spiritual energy that breathes life into our bodies. The G-dly soul is constantly striving to connect to G-d. The animal soul is world centric while the G-dly soul is heaven centric, striving to connect to its source. The animal soul’s vehicle of expression is through our material needs and material life.
The verse continues and says, “A man who shall bring near of you an offering to G‑d, from the beast, from the cattle and from the sheep, you shall bring close your offering.”
When a person brings an animal as a sacrifice in the tabernacle it is not meaningful unless he also offers the animal of himself. We must not be satisfied with ourselves and desires. We must constantly work on developing our character traits.
Some of us might behave like “cattle,” like a raging bull, aggressive in nature and not sensitive to others feelings. Others might be like the “flock” a timid individual with no backbone nor self-respect.
Comes the Torah and tells us, when you bring a sacrifice of yourself, be an “adam,” a human being of G-dly character. Be a mentsch, behave in a refined manner. The true sacrifice is of ourselves; being the best person we can be. The Torah is our guide and its message is timeless. The Torah and its mitzvoth are the blueprint for a life of quality and meaning.
Rabbi Levi Levertov serves as a rabbi for Chabad of Arizona and is the director of Chabad of Downtown Phoenix and the co-director, along with his wife Chani, of Smile on Seniors of Arizona.