Every week, for the past year, I have emailed my congregation some thoughts (and questions) about the Torah portion. Today we begin that journey again.
This week’s portion, Vayikra, is the first portion in the Book of Leviticus. To be honest this book and its focus on the Temple’s ritual cult is not my favorite. I prefer the multi-faceted stories of Genesis or the laws of Deuteronomy. In ancient times the way we drew close to God was not through prayer but through Leviticus’ sacrifices. Year after year I struggle to discover meaning in these words. Every year I wrestle with these words along with my Spring b’nai mitzvah students. “Why did they kill animals to pray to God?” they often ask. It is very difficult to get past all of the blood.
Yet this week’s chattat (sin) offering is intriguing. This was performed when a person made an unintended mistake. “If any person from among the populace unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things by which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt—or the sin of which he is guilty is brought to his knowledge—he shall bring a female goat without blemish as his offering for the sin…” (Leviticus 4:27-28)
How many times I wish I could walk to the Temple with goat in hand to cleanse me of my mistakes! There I would be able to right my wrongs and repair my mistakes. Then again perhaps I could not find enough goats! I wonder about this ancient system. How could I be improved by bringing a sacrificial offering? I think my students are right. How could my wrongs be made right by slaughtering an animal?
The ancient prophets also recognized this dilemma. They often saw the sacrifices as interfering with the enterprise of bringing justice. They rightly feared that people saw these rituals as a substitute for behaving ethically. Justice was central to their message. The prophet Amos envisions God screaming these words: “If you offer Me burnt offerings—or your meal offerings—I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings…. But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5:22-24)
So what are we to make of our rituals? What purposes do they serve? How do they help us do the right thing and bring justice and healing to our broken world? Can they help us correct our failings? How can a sacrifice—or even a prayer—help us make our world a better place?
How should I repair my wrongs if I can longer bring an offering—or for that matter I don’t have enough goats?