A Re-cap and Resetting of the Table - 10 minutes
Kick-off question - How can it be argued that sacrifice is central to the practice of our faith in God?
Introduction to Sacrifices
A. One could say that nothing of consequence, good or evil, is achieved without sacrifice. Do you think this is true, first, with respect to the good?
(First, we know that the strength and beauty of family life depends vitally on sacrifice. We devote our time, energy, creativity, love, and material resources to support and sustain our families, especially our children. It is true perhaps that sometimes, especially in these days, we do or give too much. And sometimes our effort does not always work out perfectly or as well as we would wish. Nevertheless, it’s most often true that without our sacrifice, chances for the well-being of our children or the enterprise of the family and its future, more generally, would be substantially diminished.
Second, we know that so much of the richness of our own lives has been made possible by the sacrifice of those who came before us. Whether we think religiously, patriotically or nationally, economically, technologically, or in virtually any other aspect of life, we see the fruit of those who sacrificed in all aspects of our lives.
For Christians, surely, there is no greater example than that of Jesus.
For all of us, it’s ancestors. It’s martyrs. It’s sages. It’s prophets and teachers. It’s all who built and carried forward our traditions. It’s the great generation that fought and won perhaps the awful most wars in history, in the 20th century. It’s our parents and their parents, going all the way back, who gave us life and passed on to us the values we cherish most.)
B. And what about with respect to the evil?
(We talked about this in our discussion of idolatry. Isn’t the essence of idolatry the devotion and sacrifice of time, energy, spirit, and resources in service of all the sorts of things and forces we identified as our modern day idols?
This could be our ambition to achieve fame and fortune at the expense of serving the values we hold most dear.
Or it could be prizing security so much we fail to take the risk to disrupt ease and comfort to fulfill our deepest God-given challenges.
We worship sport and spectacle so much we often sacrifice the time and commitment we owe to the service of God’s expectations and instead fill up our lives with the pretend-meaning of mass entertainment.
Sometimes we abandon and sacrifice loving-kindness and compassion out of our blind and total adherence to our own group and its supporting ideologies. While we should be proud of our own distinctiveness and its special and rich meaning, we can sacrifice the best virtues we’ve been taught from this tradition to fight too narrowly for its outward self-interest. And, in doing so, we risk the loss of peace and harmony, which our values teach us to prize most, and instead reap the fruit of disaffection and perhaps war.)
C. How could it be argued that sacrifice is central to the practice of our faith in God?
(Religious people believe their lives are to be led principally in service of God, in the way of God. God has taught us our mission. In the Jewish covenant, we are to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. God is holy, so should we be holy.
We have studied now for almost two years all the many ways in which we must bend our lives toward service of God, putting other interests to the side and devoting ourselves - our minds, hearts, hands, and feet, indeed all our might and soul - to service of God. Isn’t this sacrifice of the deepest sort?
We pray. We tithe. We give service in sacred space and in the world. We know of, and indeed practice, many acts of sacrifice to and for God. And we know all this is central, both from what we have been taught and what we have experienced in our lives.
Now here’s the beautiful thing about our lesson today and the lessons that will follow over the next few weeks. Though couched in the ancient language of sacrifice in the Temple, there are underlying truths to this Biblical text that are vitally important to us and help us enrich our service to God in our own lives and in our own times.
Please understand what I am saying and what I am not saying. I do not foresee any of us bringing animals to church or synagogue to kill them and offer them up as sacrifices! Nor, on the other hand, am I here to say that the ancients were somehow less legitimate or close to God because they did. Further, I am not about to justify either their practices or ours, if we make our offerings in half-hearted ways, or deceptively, or hypocritically.
What I mainly want to say is that if we apply our clothes-body-soul analysis to these verses we will find a treasure of inspired guidance and help in drawing near to God and then living in the Way of God.
Recall the meaning of Vayikra - God calls. God calls us to what? God calls us to draw near. We now reach that part of our study of sacred space where God teaches, and we learn directly, how to draw near the Divine. And it begins, as we have just discussed in our introductory thoughts, with the fundamental idea that we serve God, and that we devote ourselves to, nay, shall I say, sacrifice of ourselves, or even, sacrifice ourselves to God.)
D. More specifically, how do these mitzvot add to our understanding about drawing near to God in sacred space and its purpose in living out our faith?
(Let’s begin with our recollection that the principal word for sacrifice in Hebrew is korban, which means to draw near. One could say that when we sacrifice, when we bring offerings, in sacred space, we are drawing near to God. Fundamentally, put a little differently, our purpose of encounter with the Divine in sacred space is to draw near to God by bringing offerings.
In ways we’ll explore, it is in these acts through which we associate with God’s holiness, that we come closer to holiness, and from which we leave to re-enter the world better able to fulfill our covenant mission.
While the priests in ancient times made sacrifices in the Temple in ways we would not and do not in our own time, we’re looking for the underlying elements of these sacrifices that inspire and instruct us. At its most basic, people - then and now - bring and offer of themselves and their resources something of great value and, with joy, to pay homage to God, sustain relationship with God, and serve God.
There is a conscious, purposeful, and direct nature to the offerings. Sometimes the offerings are personal, and sometimes they’re communal. Sometimes they’re purely voluntary; sometimes they’re made at regular and periodic times; and sometimes we feel compelled to make offerings. We come in many different ways and for many different reasons.
First, we come simply to show reverence for God. We may do so for no other reason but to do so. We may want to express thanksgiving. We may seek favor or protection in our lives of service to God. We know God always responds to a cry; we may be crying out. And we have faith that God will remember and hear us, and bless us. This attitude to God is central to holiness.
Second, the experience of offerings in sacred space cements a relationship between the worshipper, the community, and God through a communion of sorts. In ancient times, there was an actual sharing of food between the people and God. We’ll explore all sorts of ways of sharing that can occur in our own time, including that of food. This sharing, and all it entails, is also fundamental to holiness.
Third, we draw near to God to atone for wrongdoing, to turn back to God’s ways, and to relieve the harm effected by our straying. Most serious sins, especially those that have damaged others, cannot be entirely erased by this nearness alone, but the nearness is always a part of the process, and a necessary one. We confess, repent, and, through the sacrifice of the offering we bring, we manifest our dedication to God and community of repair and return.
The world doesn’t tend to end with our wrongs, but a piece of it typically is injured and, without repair, remains so. Those we’ve hurt often are still hurt, and we often bear shame or guilt for it. God seeks healing and offers grace. But we do others, God, and ourselves great good when we participate in acts of reconciliation and shalom. This is a part of what our living in holiness is all about, and this is part of why God’s grant to us of sacred space is such a blessing.
We’ll think of how this can be done in our own times. But, as we do, we’ll ponder whether some of the drama, the connectedness, and the sacrifice of ancient time ought to be restored to ours.
Fourth, when, with God’s help, we feel expressly blessed with bounty and the many gifts we’ve been given, we may want to come to sacred space to celebrate with God, the Source of our bounty, and our community. Drawing near to God and our community in wholeness and gratitude for our God-given blessings is a part of experiencing holiness, too.
In all of these ways, we know we’ve been blessed with life and God’s support. Holiness entails that awareness; yet, it also entails our acknowledging this truth and indeed our contributing of ourselves to life’s renewal and restoration. Though their manner may seem odd to us moderns, this is what the ancients deeply believed they were doing with their sacrifices. We should find ways in our drawing near to God to do the same.
Finally, we will study tithes and vows. With tithes, we acknowledge that a regular part of the yield with which we’ve been blessed should be allocated to serving God’s mission both in sacred space and the world. And, with vows, we find ways to make and honor unique urges we feel to give and commitments we make upon those urges. Both are key ways in which we both feel holiness in our lives and act on that holiness both in support of sacred space and extending the sacred into more of the secular world.
I-IV. Let’s then get started on the mitzvot of sacrifice. Read Deuteronomy 12:13-14, 26 and Leviticus 17:3-4. Right off the bat here, we have a problem. If we’re commanded only to offer sacrifices in the ancient Temple, and we interpret sacrifices broadly, why are we having this conversation? Should we cancel class for the next three Sundays?
(As we have discussed, there were experiences of sacred space, including sacrifices, in many places both before and during the two Temple periods. Yet, the traditional reading of this text has been that sacrifice was permitted only in the Temple once it was built and only so long as the Temple stands.
Now, having said that, I rush to state several caveats. First, it is generally deemed important by most sages to continue to study these mitzvot for a variety of purposes. Second, it could be argued that the sacrifices that are no longer permitted are only those that were explicitly performed in the Temple. Third, many sages do look deep within the elements of Temple rituals, as do we, for analogues that can help us facilitate and give meaning to our own worship and service experience.
We don’t have time to go through the full exercise of explicating these verses. But suffice to say the Bible foresaw a central Temple as the principal means of worship and sacrifice in Jerusalem in the Promised Land. The drawing near in the Temple was seen as key to the people’s relationship with God. It was to this God and not to the many pagan gods of the day that we were to draw near through offerings.
So, a person of faith in the modern, post-Temple time has a choice. It’s no longer a matter of choosing God’s single Temple in Jerusalem or pagan sanctuaries. We have none of the former and plenty of the latter. While we will not implement the actual rituals that took place in the Temple, we have a decision to make about the 100 or so mitzvot that teach of the rituals regarding offerings. Are these instructions no longer of value and no longer applicable at all, or do they teach of an ongoing expectation of sacrifice that God has for us? Do they also reflect a need that we have for God and guide us in ways we should learn and follow? I side, without hesitation, with the latter.
Of course, taking that position requires that we wrestle, as we have been doing, with the issues of: what is sacred space, and where is sacred space? For while we’ve agreed that our relationship with God entails the possibility of encounter of the Divine anywhere, the discrete and formal sacred encounter we’ve been exploring these many weeks, including the offerings we will now discuss, occurs in sacred space.
We’ve had many rich discussions about where that space is and what happens there. I encourage you to review notes, recall our discussions, and keep these thoughts in your mind as we now dig deeper into the details of sacred encounter.
My hypothesis has been and remains: God calls us to draw near in sacred space with the express purpose of guiding us, inspiring us, and preparing us in holiness to go out into the world as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.)
Though we have spent considerable time, and for good reason, on this introduction, I want to cover two specific types of offerings today. First, the voluntary burnt offering. Read Leviticus 1: 2-3 and Deuteronomy 12:17.
1. Read Leviticus 1:2-3
1: 2 Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When any of you present a livestock offering to the Lord, you can present it from either the herd or the flock. 3 If the offering is an entirely burned offering from the herd, you must present a flawless male, bringing it to the meeting tent’s entrance for its acceptance before the Lord.
Q1. What do we find in the voluntary burnt offering that might be relevant to us and speak to us today? What do you make of the wide variety of animals that might be offered? 1) What do you make of the wide variety of animals that might be offered, that is, from the herd or the flock? 2) What do you make of the fact that, unlike most other offerings, these must, according to Maimonides’ reading of the verse from Deuteronomy, be burnt whole?; and 3) Can you think of offerings we make today that have a kinship to these offerings at a fundamental level, and why and how we could make them?
(1. They were of a wide variety of types and value of animals, suggesting that all, from rich to poor, could bring and offer them. And they could do so for a variety of reasons, needs, and purposes for which they could, at any time, come forward to draw near to God.
2. While atonement, sinful thoughts, or failure to fulfill good intentions may have explained this sacrifice at a certain level, the offering more generally appears to encompass a broader range of needs and desires to draw near God on a voluntary basis. But it is to God that we come, and this offering is intended for God alone.
3. This offering may, for us as well, call upon us to sacrifice material resources, to be sure. But doesn’t another sort of sacrifice come more to mind, such as what we give up in prayer? Worship, meditation, moments of devotion also seem to fit. In doing all of these, we “burn up time,” perhaps our most valuable “commodity.” The market value of the time of some may far exceed that of others, just as the value of a bull exceeds that of a dove. Further, some of the our time is more valuable than that of other time.
motivates this sacrifice? If we “bring a bull,” perhaps we have gotten off the
mark in fulfilling the goals of our better selves, or have been caught up in
unproductive thinking or deeds, and we have a strong need to get back and right
with God. We seek in doing so to re-orient ourselves to the correct path, to
holiness, if you will. If we “bring a goat or a pigeon,” perhaps we simply seek
strength and support or comfort that comes from time spent - above and beyond -
in meditation, devotion, and nearness to God.)
2. Read Numbers 28:2-4.
2 Command the Israelites and say to them: Make sure to offer to me my offering, my food, my food gift as a soothing smell to me at its appointed time. 3 You will say to them: This is the food gift that you must present to the Lord: two flawless one-year-old lambs as the regular entirely burned offering every day. 4 One lamb you will offer in the morning and the second at twilight.
Q2. These are the regular morning and evening offerings. Through a clothes/body/soul analysis, what might these mitzvot teach us?
(As opposed to the previous offerings, these have the touch of regularity - morning and evening. They seem to say that we have a need to, and God has a desire for us to, draw near regularly, in some fashion with the community and with community resources.
We have a need to direct the entirety of our hearts and thoughts to attach ourselves to God, as Chinuch says, at least as often as we ourselves feel the need to eat. We constantly awake our intellect and emotions to remember and be near the Creator, so as to be holy as the Divine wishes.
this be regular prayer, morning and evening? Community prayer, devotionals,
and/or study each day, whether at church/synagogue or in friendship circles?
Or, if we see this as interior, do we regularly bring our whole self - all its
components - to this prayer/devotional? In any event, we are to contribute
resources to support our individual and collective capacity to engage in these
3. Read Leviticus 2:1-16
2: 1 When anyone presents a grain offering to the Lord, the offering must be of choice flour. They must pour oil on it and put frankincense on it, 2 then bring it to Aaron’s sons, the priests. A priest will take a handful of its choice flour and oil, along with all of its frankincense, and will completely burn this token portion on the altar as a food gift of soothing smell to the Lord. 3 The rest of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons as a most holy portion from the Lord’s food gifts.
4 When you present a grain offering baked in an oven, it must be of choice flour: unleavened flatbread mixed with oil or unleavened wafers spread with oil. 5 If your offering is grain prepared on a griddle, it must be of choice flour mixed with oil and it must be unleavened. 6 Crumble it into pieces and pour oil on it; it is a grain offering. 7 If your offering is grain prepared in a pan, it must be made of choice flour with oil. 8 You will bring the grain offering made in one of these ways to the Lord, presenting it to the priest, who will then bring it to the altar. 9 The priest will remove from the grain offering the token portion and completely burn it on the altar as a food gift of soothing smell to the Lord. 10 The rest of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons as a most holy portion from the Lord’s food gifts.
11 No grain offering that you give to the Lord can be made with yeast. You must not completely burn any yeast or honey as a food gift for the Lord. 12 You can present those as first-choice offerings to the Lord, but they must not be entirely burned up on the altar as a soothing smell.
13 You must season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not omit the salt of your God’s covenant from your grain offering. You must offer salt with all your offerings.
14 If you present a grain offering to the Lord from the first produce, you must make such an offering from the crushed heads of newly ripe grain, roasted with fire.15 You must put oil and frankincense on it; it is a grain offering. 16 The priest will completely burn the token portion—some of the crushed new grain and oil along with all of the frankincense—as a food gift for the Lord.
Q3. What might be distinctive about the voluntary meal offering? Is there an underlying meaning of these mitzvot that might be of value to us?
(Some sages say it was an offering that could be afforded by the poor and thus created an opportunity for all to draw near God regardless of means.
The fact that the priests were to eat a portion of this offering suggests, however, that it may have been a different offering altogether than the olah.
It is modest. It does serve the priests, too. We offer it, with salt, as if to say it must be fresh. We do not offer it with leaven and honey, as if to say we do not offer it with the attitude that we delay or flatter in our approach to God.
In more recent times, the minchah offering has become associated with the afternoon prayer. Perhaps an idea for us is that we ought to break up the day with a moment of prayer, devotion, or meditation in the afternoon. It could serve as a reminder, a brief restoration, or a turning. Perhaps it could be a moment of spiritual and ethical accounting for the day - recalling our highest goals, how we’re meeting them, and what we can do during the remainder of the day to do better.
We live each day in the hustle and bustle of our lives, touching all sorts of emotions, the good and the bad. Many in different cultures pull away in the middle of the day for tea or exercise or meditation. Maybe these mitzvot give people of faith some other wonderful ways to draw near God at mid-day, and then return to work, the office, or other busy-ness, restored in the Divine way for the rest of the day.
One final point: since the priest also eats of this offering, perhaps we find ways to support those who help us draw near to God in some appropriate way as part of the minchah offering. This could be financial support or help in relieving burdens or perhaps even a lifting message of support, which may be as valuable as any support we might give our modern day priests.)