Torah Portion of the Week: I Gave at the Tabernacle

Parashat Vayikra: While a gift is given in a symmetrical relationship, sacrifices take place within a hierarchical relationship, in which the inferior party offers something to the superior one, which is not obligated to accept it.

The Sacrifice of the Old Covenant, by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1626.
Wikimedia Commons

The first chapters of Leviticus – encompassing Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26) and half of next week’s portion – contain laws pertaining to sacrifice. The text says little about the meaning of sacrifices, but instead outlines the function of each ritual associated with them, describing in detail how they should be offered. But the general concept behind the ritual is not explicitly explained in the laws of sacrifice.

The absence of an explanation is not surprising because the offering of sacrifices was an accepted practice in all the cultures that predated or were contemporaneous with the era in which the Bible was written. The biblical notion of sacrifice was not an innovation and needed no justification. After sacrifices were abolished, however, and ceased being self-understood, exegetists and theologians had to explain them. My teacher Moshe Halbertal suggests one explanation in his book “On Sacrifice,” which refers to a study by anthropologist Marcel Mauss called “The Gift.”

When you give a gift to someone, you create a circle of giving and receiving, which is based on the primeval obligation of giving a gift, and on the recipient’s commitment to accept it and then to give a gift in return. The recipient becomes the gift-giver and the circle continues.

A sacrifice is different from a standard gift. A gift is given in a symmetrical relationship, in which both giver and recipient have equal status and where the gift must be accepted and another given in return. In contrast, sacrifices take place within a hierarchical relationship, in which the inferior party offers something to the superior one, which is not obligated to accept it. Like the senior party in a human hierarchy, God can reject a sacrifice.

The insult of rejection can be more grievous than the pain of being unable to give a gift. Just think of an individual or a community as a whole whose blood donation is thrown away: That action is no less humiliating and infuriating than discrimination and inequality. When you offer a gift to a superior, you always fear that the person or divine sovereign will reject it. When the first human being to offer a sacrifice, Cain, is confronted with rejection, he becomes humanity’s first murderer.

The best way to remove uncertainty and the danger of rejection is by way of the vehicle of law: The laws of sacrifice prescribe, down to the minutest detail, the only legitimate method for making the offering, thus ensuring acceptance.

“When any man of you bringeth an offering unto the Lord, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd or of the flock” (Leviticus 1:2). One is not free to offer any sacrifice one pleases, nor is it the one giving the offering who performs all the acts required in a sacrifice or decide in what order they should be performed. One has little ability to choose how his sacrifice will look, and how it will differ from his neighbor’s or from the sacrifice he offered yesterday; at the same time, the danger of the sacrifice being rejected is eliminated.

Not only does one lose one’s ability to express himself freely and spontaneously in the performance of this ritual; to ensure its success, God himself loses the ability to make a choice.

Take, for example, forgiveness, which is considered today to be a voluntary, interpersonal act between offender and offended, and which is regarded similarly in most of the Bible’s texts. In contrast, according to the laws of sacrifice, forgiveness takes place automatically when a sacrifice is offered: “And if any one of the common people sin through error … then he shall bring for his offering a goat … and the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven” (Lev. 4:27-31). The act of forgiveness in the biblical context is so impersonal that the verb “to forgive” is rendered here in the passive voice: Instead of “I will forgive” or “God will forgive,” the text reads “shall be forgiven” – forgiveness without any party granting it.

Similarly, punishment in the laws of sacrifices and Tabernacle is impersonal. Two of Aaron the priest’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, whose tragic death will be depicted in the portion read two weeks from now, die because they violate the laws of sacrifice. However, it is not God who kills them: “And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2). The sanctuary reacts automatically when someone violates its rules and the result is the offender’s death: There is no need for divine intervention or divine wrath or even any attempt to appease God and prevent the disaster. This, as well, is the price of the ritualization of sacrifices.

God’s presence in the midst of the Israelites is paradoxical: It is mediated through the sanctuary, but is thus rendered more distant. God in his temple is like a revered, powerful ruler who appears before the masses behind armored glass – so close and yet so distant.

The religious act that seems to be the opposite of sacrifice in terms of its meaning is prayer. Because prayer is an interpersonal request, the assumption based on its very definition is that it can be rejected. The instances where God does not accede to a prayer exemplify the fact that a prayer is a request, a plea presented before God and not an action that can affect reality directly. Prayer and sacrifice express two different kinds of religiosity: Prayer preserves our subjectivity and God’s while sacrifice favors fixed patterns and eschews arbitrariness.

In his book “The Sanctuary of Silence,” biblical scholar Israel Knohl emphasizes the absence of verbal communication between God and the Israelites in sanctuary ritual as depicted in the priestly literature in the Torah, including Leviticus. The priestly code describes the offering of a sacrifice as an act enveloped in silence: The sanctuary is a place for action, not prayer.

With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, sacrifices were abolished and replaced by prayer. One can speculate whether the regular prayers conducted in synagogues are substantially equivalent to spontaneous prayer or whether they are very much like the offering of sacrifices: When we pray, do we expect something from God, do we await a reply and do we fear that our prayer might be rejected, or should the reciting of a fixed liturgical text at fixed times and according to detailed rules and regulations be placed not under the category of speech, but rather under that of action, and thus be regarded as being closer to sacrifice than prayer?