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Sacrifices Are the Best Prayers

This week we begin reading the Book of Leviticus. It details the ancient rituals surrounding sacrifices. Until the Temple was destroyed, in 70 C.E., we approached God by offering animals as sacrifices. Because we instead pray, and offer words, it sounds strange to read the details of slaughtering animals, sprinkling their blood on the altar and then turning their flesh into smoke.

My students often turn away in disgust. Even though every single one of them loves a good barbeque, they are repelled by the Torah’s details and the notion that God would want us to bring the choicest bull, sheep, goat or turtledove to the Temple and then kill it. The notion of sacrifice is foreign to them.

The idea of making sacrifices, however, derive from this ritual. We must give up something of value, something that we want and even need. These animals were prized. They were therefore given to God—first. By giving something up our ancestors drew nearer to God. In fact, the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, derives from the word meaning “to get close.”

By sacrificing prized possessions, by relinquishing ownership to the creator God, the ancient Israelites demonstrated that their property was not owned, but instead borrowed. In effect, they said to God, “I return Your creations to You.”

To let go, to relinquish ownership, is not how we approach the world. It is not how we look at our possessions. We even call them “belongings.” While I realize that belongings more often refer to those things that we can pack into a suitcase, the word suggests a sense of personal ownership that is absent from the Torah. In our tradition, the focus is on God’s ownership.

The only true owner is God. We care for what God creates. We are custodians and stewards.

Giving up and making sacrifices makes perfect sense if nothing is truly mine. We do not relinquish but return. If everything is borrowed, if all that I hold is but lent to me, then offering it (back) to God is easy. And then sharing with others is even easier.

For when we sacrifice not only do we draw closer to God, but we also draw nearer to others.

Perhaps making sacrifices is the prayer we most need—now.