This week we begin Sefer VaYikra, the book of Leviticus where sacrifices are a central topic and theme. The nature of sacrifices and their application to our daily lives is of major import and can teach us life-altering lessons.
When I first started in the rabbinate, there was a family in my congregation whose single daughter wanted to get married. On Yom Kippur, they were advised to buy the maftir, the last person called up to the Torah on Shabbat and holiday mornings, as a segulah, a form of protection or a charm, to assist the woman in finding her husband. Unbeknownst to them, there was another congregant, who had a medical issue, and was also advised to buy the maftir that year on Yom Kippur as a segulah for healing.
Our congregation had the custom to auction off the aliyot each year to fund the synagogue’s most urgent fiscal needs. As can be imagined, each side was prepared to outbid all others, and the bids were going higher and higher with no end in sight. Finally, after thinking about the other side’s needs, one of the bidders decided to split the honor and to give up their own desire to be honored alone. The woman found her husband a few months later and the person who had medical issues had a full recovery later in the year as well.
I thought about this incident a lot during this past year and reflected that when one sacrifices and gives of themself, they receive as much, if not more, than originally intended.
Korbanos, the animal sacrifices brought to the Mishkan and later to the Temple in Jerusalem, was subject to great debate throughout Jewish history.According to Maimonides, the Rambam, the world was steeped in the practice of sacrificing animals for idol worship. The desire was too strong to abolish, so when we left Egypt and received the Torah, G-d gave the Jewish people the mitzvah of korbanos, which was a proper way to sacrifice animals.
The Ramban, Nachmonides, however, felt that the mitzvah was given to the Jewish people regardless of the influence of secular societies. When one sinned and had a spiritual lapse, bringing a korban was the method Hashem gave the Jewish people for atonement.
There is a third opinion that is less well-known, authored by the scholar known as the Akeidas Yitzchak. He proposed that it is in a person’s nature to want to repay someone for their kindness. God gave us this opportunity to express gratitude to Him through the use of sacrifices, even though quite clearly, He does not need to be repaid. He did it for our own satisfaction and well-being.
Today, we have replaced animal sacrifices with prayer, but we still have other ways in which we sacrifice by giving of ourselves.
This past year, we as a society, and specifically as a Jewish community, faced an extremely difficult situation and responded with much sacrifice. From families that had to remain separate from each other, to synagogues that had
to close their doors, to medical personnel on the front lines — with whom I’ve interacted hundreds of times throughout this past year — we have faced a situation that is truly once in a lifetime. It will define our children for many years to come. What is important as we are, hopefully, slowly heading out of the pandemic, is to learn how to take the lessons from the last year and apply them to our future.
VaYikra teaches us to take the lessons from this past year of forced resourcefulness, hope and optimism, and use them to keep searching for new ways to keep in touch and thrive as individuals and communities. Obviously, we never wanted COVID-19, but we can learn from it and be a part of an active team that sacrifices for each member of our larger extended family. JN
Rabbi Michael Dubitsky is a hospital chaplain for Jewish Family & Children’s Services and teacher at Shearim Torah High School for Girls.