With Parashat Vayikra we begin the book of Leviticus. Of the five books of the Torah, this one is the most difficult for people today to relate to. The opening chapters that we read this week are all about animal sacrifice. So we find ourselves asking, why does God want us to sacrifice animals?
It is strange, a foreign form of worship.
One thought is that animal sacrifice was not part of the Divine plan until after the episode of the Golden Calf. Then it became clear that we needed tangible ways of connecting to God and, in the ancient world, sacrifice was how it was done. The Torah limits sacrifices: No human sacrifice was allowed; only certain animals could be offered; and it was only done by trained people and at a set location.
Maimonides teaches that God intended us to progress from animal sacrifice to prayer once we were ready for that transition, but it would have been too much to expect the former slaves to accept an invisible God and words alone as a way to connect to God. It would have been too far out of their realm of experience.
I think that what was important for them and remains important for us today is the idea that sacrifice means giving up something of value to show commitment. We don’t slaughter animals, but we still value the concept of sacrifice. We talk about parents sacrificing for their children. We use the term in sports, a sacrifice fly to score another runner. Sometimes there is something that we really want, so we make sacrifices, giving up other things in order to achieve our higher goal.
Vayikra tells us much about ways of connecting to God and that is still something that most of us value. It lists different types of sacrifices from a complete burnt offering to a sin offering, a guilt offering, but also an offering of wellbeing. There was even a grain offering — it wasn’t only animals that were valued and sacrificed. We still seek to connect to the Divine when we feel we have sinned. It is no accident that the synagogue is never as full as on Yom Kippur when we seek forgiveness for our sins. We also want to connect with God at happy times, at the birth of a child or celebrating a wedding — we come to the synagogue, we offer prayers and we make donations, our form of sacrifice. We do it because human needs and longings have not changed in millennia, only the methods we use to achieve our ends.
So rather than focusing on the slaughter and the burning, think about what we value, what we want to celebrate and how we can best connect to God; for after all that is the purpose of the Torah.