Parshas Vayikra: Giving & Taking

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March 21 2023
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This week’s sedra, Vayikra, opens up the third book of Torah.  With the opening of Sefer Vayikra, we enter a world of mitzvos far removed from our lives today.  Korbanos (animal sacrifices), avodas ha’Mishkan (the service of the Kohanim in the Tabernacle), tumah and ta’harah (ritual, spiritual impurity and purity), avodas Yom ha’Kippurim, laws of the metzorah, zav and zavah, and even tumas ha’yoledes (ritual impurity of a woman after childbirth), are all mitzvos and aspects of Jewish law that are very foreign to us, as a result of almost 2,000 years of exile.  With the Temple in ruin and Har Ha’bayis desolate, bereft of her people, the House of G-d and the Divine Presence, it may seem difficult for us to relate to this third book of Torah, also known as Toras Kohanim (a Book of Instruction to the Priests).  


In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l, “Vayikra, the third book of Torah, is markedly different from the others.  It contains no journey.  It is set entirely at Sinai.  It occupies only a brief section of time: a single month.  There is almost no narrative.  Yet, set at the centre of the Mosaic books, it is the key to understanding Israel’s vocation as ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Shemos 19:6), the first collective mission statement in history.  This parasha, with which the book opens, details the various kinds of sacrifices the Israelites brought to the Tabernacle.  There were five: the burnt offering (olah), the grain offering (mincha), the peace offering (shelamim), the sin offering (chatas), and the guilt offering (asham)” (Covenant and Conversation, Leviticus, p.51).


These korbanos (from the root word K.R.V. - to come close), were the most integral part of the avodas kohanim in the Mishkan, and through this daily service, the nation had a means to come close to Hashem.  


While there are many ways to understand the avodah of korbanos, and in his commentary to Pirkei Avos, Rabbeinu Yona writes that for this avodah the entire world was created (Avos 1:2), what lessons and meaning can we derive for our day and age?  Does G-d ‘need’ our offerings (keviyachol!)?  How can we understand that our sacrifices are a ‘pleasing fragrance before Him’?  As the RS”O is the Kol Yachol (All-Able), and He creates, fashions, sustains and owns all, how do korbanos ‘work’; how can we offer to G-d what is His in the first place?


Rabbi Lord J. Sacks z’l offers a meaningful and relevant answer.  R’ Sacks writes, “My late father sold schmattes, offcuts of cloth, on Commercial Road, the London equivalent of NY’s Lower East Side.  He was a proud man, born at the wrong time.  Having come to Britain as a child fleeing persecution in Poland, he had to leave school at the age of fourteen to help earn money working with his father to support the family.  He was not one of nature’s businessmen.  He had a fine mind and excellent taste in music, art and literature, in all of which he was completely self-educated.  In another life, he would have been a successful professional.  But none of us chooses when to be born, and we are not all equally lucky.  Like many of his contemporaries, he dedicated his life to giving his children the opportunities he lacked.  That was the blessing he gave us, his four sons.


“There was one gift that to me, the eldest, meant more than all others.  From almost as soon as I could walk, we used to go to the synagogue together every Shabbat.  On the way back I would ask him questions about what we had done or said during the service.  He always gave me the same answer, and it was this that shaped my life.  He used to say: ‘Jonathan, I didn’t have an education, so I can’t answer your questions.  But one day you will have the education I did not have, and when that happens, you will teach me the answers to those questions.’  


“If I achieved anything in my life,” comments R’ Sacks, “it was because of that reply” (C&C, Leviticus, p.61-62).


What was so deeply moving and impactful in his father’s words that inspired Rabbi Sacks to become the person, statesman, scholar, author, leader and teacher that, in fact, he did become?  So often, bordering on almost always, it is the parent who gives to the child.  From the moment of conception, the mother is giving to her unborn baby.  Blood, nutrients, air, sustenance, life, and love, are transferred from the mother to the growing embryo, fetus, baby.  And from the moment of birth, the parent instinctively takes upon him/herself, with unwavering commitment to provide, care for, raise, and give to the child.  The giving is never-ending, all-encompassing, and often, to some degree or another, continues as long as parent and child both live.  


What, truly, can the child give back to the parent?  A picture scribbled in nursery school.  A smile, laugh, hug and kiss.  An occasional card of appreciation and a note of thanks.  Can the child ever repay - or even come close - to giving back to the parent what the parent has bestowed upon his child?  It is in this vein that R’ Sacks explains one approach to understanding Korbanos; our offerings to the All-Encompassing G-d.  


“What my late father showed me was that there is a way out of this tension (between the father and son), but it needs exceptional humility on the part of the parents.  What my father gave me was the opportunity to give back to him.  This is very rare.  Children know how dependent they are on their parents.  They know that when they give their parents a present, it is usually only a token gesture.  It is a supremely risky move on the part of the parents to genuinely empower a child to give them something of real worth.  It is the ultimate act of humility, and it confers on the child a dignity and self-worth like no others…


“Why then does the Torah permit, indeed require, sacrifice?… The answer seems obvious once we appreciate the central image of G-d as Father and the Israelites as His children.  The greatest gift a parent can give a child is the dignity of being able to give.  It is not that the parent lacks anything or that the child has genuinely given something he owns.  Its significance is that it is a gesture of love - of acknowledgement and thanksgiving and reciprocity.  The child knows that he has nothing of his own to give, yet he seeks to answer love with love.  For a parent to give a child that possibility is a monumental act of humility.  As R. Yochanan said, G-d’s greatness is His humility (Megilla 31a), and never more than here” (C&C, Leviticus, p.62-66).  


In life, it is important to remember that sometimes, the ultimate act of giving is taking.  Hashem, Who is the Provider and Sustainer of all life forms, allows us to be givers, and He to be the taker.  And in His taking from His children (keviyachol), the RS”O gives us the greatest gift there is.  The dignity and elevation that comes from giving back to our Father, our King.


בברכת חודש טוב ושבת שלום

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    Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by the Goldberg and Mernick families to mark the yahrzeit of Samuel M. Goldberg, R’ Shmuel Meir ben R’ Eliyahu HaCohen z”l