Leviticus  1:1-5:26       Lesson 23 Notes
Torah Portion Vayikra


1. We now enter the book we commonly call Leviticus. In the Hebrew Bible it is know by the first word, Vayikra, also the title of this portion. It means, He called. It is also the Torat Kohanim, instructions for the priests. We should keep in mind that it has little to do with Levites or laws for Levites, or even laws for only priests. The name, Vayikra, thus, would, for me, be preferred. 

2. The main interest in the book is the proper worship of God, how to be loyal to God, and, mostly, how, in response to God's call we draw near to God in sacred space at regular as well as special occasions. 

3. We have already learned that our mission is to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. How do we prepare to be that? How do we practice and live in holiness as part of our covenant?

4. In this book, we will learn about the major sacrifices or offerings we bring to draw near to God, and we will think about not only what these were like in ancient times but also what these words about offerings might possibly mean to us in modern times. In other words, it's universal that God calls, and it's universal that we seek to draw near to God. How might we find meaning in this  ancient text toward these universal goals?

We will learn about the role and proper  functions of the priests. 

We will learn more about dietary rules and the special place of the Day of Atonement. 

We will explore the holiness code. And, then, as we get to the core of the book (and the center of all 5 books), we will get to basic ethical teachings, including the central idea of "love your neighbor as yourself." 

We will work back out from the center through priestly duties, festivals, ways of administering the sanctuary, notions of "purity" with respect to required ways of being (or not being) in sacred space, the concept of separation as fundamental to holiness, mitzvot on the land and debts, and the primacy of obeying God. 

5. The first focus of the book, and indeed the main attention of this first portion, is sacrifice. Let's get "a base line," for getting started by my asking you this question: what is your understanding of sacrifice? 

More expressly, when you think of sacrifice in the Bible, what do you think? What are the basic elements of the sacrificial experience? Have you extended those thoughts to any meaning these ideas might have for us today, and, if so, how? Do we, or should we, sacrifice for God? In what ways do we, or should we?

(Did God need or want food from us as in other ancient cultures? Or was it an expected show of devotion by people who could not deal totally with or through a totally abstract sense of the divine? Or was it even more deeply our bringing the material things we value and offer them up, give them up, to support the sacred enterprise and, in doing so, come closer to God, and sustain our nearness, our relationship with God?

We studied and talked a lot about growing near to God in our study of psalms. There it was more of a spiritual and emotional nature. We'll consider whether those approaches altogether "scratch the itch," or whether we get to separate and perhaps additional dimensions of the instinct to sacrifice in our study of this book. 

After the destruction of the Second Temple, we see the replacement of these practices with prayer and study in the synagogue, as well as piety and other ways of obeying God's expectations. Some practices in churches also  have their origin in, though they too have replaced, these ancient offerings. We'll study them as well. 

But here are  big questions we'll explore: do we have a need to do more? Are prayer and study adequate substitutes? Though no one is thinking about restoring animal sacrifice, are there needs that were met in ancient practice that we no longer do enough to meet today?

Do we want to give up something of value to God or for God's benefit or to support those who help bring us near God? Is there something to the giving up and/or the using up by "priests" or others or God in the ancient practice that might inform us today?

Let's be clear from the start: these offerings could not absolve us from consequences for intentional wrongdoing. Living in accord with the requirements of justice and getting right with those we've wronged are separately insisted upon. We'll talk about the bases for sacrifices in a moment and their purposes.)

I want you to know as we begin this discussion that I have been studying and thinking about sacrifice and these verses for over a decade. I have begun to write about it. I believe that there are deeper and universal expectations in these sacrifice mitzvot that go way beyond the surface of animal sacrifice and speak to us today. 

These thoughts of mine are not entirely novel, but there enough mine that I want to disclose this to you and that it is expressly your fearless teacher who is stretching you today.  These mitzvot are intricate; there have been numerous understandings of them over time, often differing and often uncertain or vague. I join the long line of those who opine on them, as I hope you will, too. 

Ready? Let's get started. It's interesting right from the beginning! As we go through each form of sacrifice, ask yourself these questions: What's being offered? By whom? For what purpose? Under what conditions? For whose benefit? What other details are provided that guide you to meaning, both as to what may have been intended to the ancients as well perhaps as for us today?

I. Read Lev. 1:1-3, 10, 14. (Then mention with each - cattle, sheep or goat, or bird - it's here to be a burnt offering, a gift, of pleasing order to God.)

 A. The title of the portion and the book is vayikra, He called. What's the significance of that?

(A sense of further mission or calling perhaps. Now we get to the enterprise, let's talk! This is now what we built this sanctuary for.)

B. We're now into the first of the sacrifices. 

1. Can you see what this one is? And why would it come first? At least, try to identify its characteristics. 

(First, who's this for? The priests? The Levites? No! It's for the people! This is for us. Keep that in mind. 

Second, let's see it's an offering. The Hebrew is korban. It literally means to bring near. So, this is about our coming forward to come near to God. 

Third, it's for the purpose of a burnt offering. The Hebrew is olah, which means "to ascend." This offering was not intended to be eaten by priests or community. It was entirely to go up, and in this first case it appears to be a voluntary offering by an individual for a variety of purposes,  perhaps including initially expiation (The sages debate "the why and whether" of that, though it might simply be to address and resolve the need, "fill the hole" that brought the person there in the first place.).

Fourth, it could be cattle, or sheep or goat, or bird? What does that suggest? The person who comes forward may have resources for one or the other and not the more expensive. 

Fifth, they all are intended to be a gift to God, of pleasing aroma.) 

2. Ok, put yourself first in the position of an ancient but then think as a modern. Think metaphorically or deeply and tell me how we might read this and find meaning. 

(There are times we want to offer something entirely to God for good reason or maybe for no particular reason.  It can be of a variety of types of offering. While it may be of greater or lesser value, it must be of the best. And we do it to "draw near" to God, with the hope that it is pleasing to God, with our heart directed to God. The first is such an offering from a person such as you or I. Why? The desire to give to God purely and wholly needs to be in each of us! It should start with that!)

3. And what might such offerings be today?

(A special commitment to God to meet a desire or need we bring. A prayer of love and gratitude. A gift of time to serving God. A sacrifice of something of value purely to be of service to God out of our felt need to do so. Others?)

II. Read Lev. 2:1-3, 11, 13. 

From this general reading, what are the basic elements of this minhah or grain offering, and what does it mean at a deep level? There are all sorts of differing ideas in the tradition. 

(Grain is more affordable, thus this could have been an offering available to those of lesser means. Thus, we have another indication that it's expected that offerings should and can be made by all regardless of means. This could be the avenue of good will to God from those with limited means. 

But since some of the sacrifice would be eaten by the priests, this could be a different sort of sacrifice altogether.  It must be choice. It's offered with salt (freshness? Preservative?) but not leaven (puffed up or fermented?). 

Could this be about giving up unworthy ambitions or a yearning of wealth and being content with one's means? Or a way for people of all means to support God's enterprise? 

Or, this could be associated with the afternoon prayer service, the Minhah service.  What if there were a small offering we might make in the middle of the afternoon when we're full of the secular and needing to break from it all and  remind ourselves of our duties and service to God? Sort of a religious version of afternoon tea?) 

III. Read Lev. 3:1-5. 

We've read the procedures for the offering here of the zevach sh'lamim for an animal of the herd. The next verses also cover the offering of a sheep and a goat. 

So, what are the features of this offering, and what might it mean? Let me give you a clue first. The word sh'lamim - you all know some Hebrew - what other word does that word remind you of? 

(Shalom! Yes, this is an offering of wholeness and peace and well-being. The food, except for certain parts and substance, is to be eaten by priests and congregants, and indeed those that brought it. Thus, it's a celebration! Think happiness. Think rejoicing. Think returning safely from travel. Think giving up something to celebrate a blessing. Think an offering to bind people together and honor or encourage harmony. Etc., etc. 

In the Zohar, we learn that of all the offerings, none are so well beloved by God as the peace offerings, because they bring harmony to upper and lower. The peace offerings spread peace everywhere and allay strife and wrangling. 

Do we ever want to give and celebrate at those times and in those ways and to that end?) 

IV. Read 4:1, 3, 13-14, 22-23, 27-28. 

This is the chatat offering, sometimes called the sin offering. But it's important to know it's not about intended or defiant or purposeful wrongdoing. It's more about action that distances us from God-presence and that is unintended or inadvertent or when we get negligent and let our guard down, including straying from commitments we make in the covenant. Also, this is not about wrongs we essentially do to others. That requires getting right with them and/or in the courts. 

Think of it as missing the mark with regard to our duties to God or being in a way that does not fit with being with God in sacred space. Think about it as doing something or being in a way that has separated us from being in sacred space. 

Ideas on ways in which that might happen? And why might the text want us to bring an offering when it happens? Note who is to bring it. What's significant about that?

(Generally, even when we do wrong, we don't intend to. And our inclination is to bury it or rationalize it. Yet, we realize deep inside that we've erred, likely hurt our own soul, and distanced ourselves from God. 

What if we were encouraged to examine ourselves and pull it out when we do, and have this avenue to come close to God, and get right? Wouldn't this both make us more mindful and create an avenue to come back? It is important to the one who comes but also to the integrity (purity?) of the sacred space and all who come to it, as well as proper honor to God whom we meet there. 

This is for leaders, too, as well as priests and the community as a whole.  Wouldn't that be refreshing?! If leaders did such a thing, instead of either stonewalling or making cheap confessions or blaming others, wouldn't that be healthy for all and encourage all of us to do so as well?

This was never to bribe God. That wouldn't work "in the system." Rather it was to call us to acknowledge straying, come forward, commit to doing better, and get back on track.)

V. Chapter 5. The text gets very confusing here. Some scholars argue that verses 1-13 are really a sort of continuation of chatat, the concept we just discussed. Others argue that after verse 1, we move on to another issue and another set of sacrifices. We can't and won't try to resolve it ourselves just now. 

What I want us to understand is that once the notion of asham, commonly translated as a guilt offering, is raised in verse 2, we should consider what gives rise to the need for this new concept. 

A. The text in this chapter addresses situations when a person fails to testify when he/she had information, fails to fulfill an oath, was remiss in handling holy objects, or became tamei unwittingly  (typically called "unclean" or "impure").

As to cleanliness and purity, we have a lot to discuss about this, though we don't have the time today. Suffice to say that our English words do a poor job of what I think is intended.  There clearly are ancient notions of impurity and the devastating risks it posed in sacred space. But I want to throw out the broader notion that being "tamei," in Hebrew, (which is the word I propose we use when we see this in the future), fundamentally means that one has recently been engaged in some aspect of living that has led to a lack of readiness, perhaps even inappropriateness,  to be engaged in the sacred activity in sacred space along with the priests and others who are there. More to come on that!)

So, what's common to the activity that gives rise to the asham offering?

(I want to suggest a carelessness, even negligence, with sacred duty - whether done in the arena of justice, in the sanctuary, or anywhere else and then entering the sanctuary. This failure to be mindful in these ways, once we, as people of God, recognize them, does indeed create a sense of guilt, a regret, a sense we fell short in an omission of a serious sort. And we, as people of God, have the need to handle and resolve that guilt by return and restoration.)

B. The portion closes out with God's instruction to Moses regarding a situation in which a person robs or defrauds another person. The offender has to compensate the victim with value of the damage  plus a fifth AND bring an offering to the sanctuary. This is akin to the reparation due for damage done to object in sacred space. 

Why both?

(Cheating another person is a sin to the other AND a sin against God! Getting right with both is necessary. As Akiba taught, whenever we engage with another, there are three parties to the action - we, the other, and God! Plus since the other was made in the image of God, cheating the other is a violation of God both as participant and witness.)  


So, we built the sanctuary according to God's instruction at the end of Exodus. With Vayikra, God calls us, directs us now as to how we are to come to the sanctuary and what we are principally to do when we come. What we have learned today basically is that God has given us the sanctuary (whatever form it might take) fundamentally to respond to our most basic needs. 

Vayikra, God calls us to come near. That is really what this book is about. We pause in the narrative of the story from Exodus to Numbers to understand just that, that God calls us to come near.  

We come with our needs and our desires and our various behaviors and actions. We come whether we are rich or poor. We come sometimes simply because we want to be near to God. Or we want to celebrate well being and harmony. Or we have missed the mark or been inattentive to duty. Or we've done wrong to another, and we know we need to get right with both the other person and God. 

God is present to us at all such times and more. We've begun a discussion today about the Bible's wisdom regarding how we approach God when we come. In ancient times, people brought animals and grains. My hypothesis is the Bible is still speaking to us, though the Temple no longer stands. The deepest issue we have begun to consider is: when we come to God, what do we bring? In other words, what serves as our animals and grains today? 

We've talked about prayer, devotion, worship, dedication of time and energy to holy pursuits. Keep thinking about these things. And while you're at it, think about how we offer material things of value to support the sacred enterprise. How would giving in rote ways or purely by dues stack up? Yes, we tithe. But do God's words here ask us to do more and something a bit different?

What if we were to give, at least in part, in alignment with the sorts of needs and duties and responses and repair we've talked about in these mitzvot, in these instructions we've discussed today?

Food for thought. The good news: this discussion continues through this whole book! Come back! You won't believe where this book goes!

Torah Portion Vayikra        Leviticus  1:1-5:26     

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