When Adar comes in, our happiness is increased. But when Vayikra comes in, we feel as if the Promised Land of great stories and heroes is far, far away.
Torah scholars through the centuries have tried to give us reasons to rejoice in these endless passages on the most minute and bloody details of sacrifices, but it is hard to say they have succeeded. Some point out that we are moving from a physical to a spiritual journey. After all, the book begins with the words “And God called.” Called – not just spoke.
Others point out how the details of ritual sacrifice were transformed so that Judaism and the Jewish people were able to survive thousands of years without a temple. Reconstructionist prayers have embraced this break by eliminating prayers for the restoration of the temple sacrifices.
But let me suggest a wholly different way of approaching these very difficult passages. Try embracing them. Try taking on the feeling of what it means to be living in a society in which this is the form worship takes. After all, this form of worship, using sacrifices as its center, has had a long history of success. It must offer people something for this to be the case. Use these weekly parshiot to explore what that might be.
To that end, let me offer some questions to guide you in your embrace of Vayikra. Consider that this is a very physical approach to spirituality. Those of us who practice yoga know that physical practices can lead to spiritual development. These laws of korbanot (sacrifice) are regarded as hukkim (laws that for which we have no rational understanding) as opposed to the mishpatim, which are the sorts of legislative laws we think of. So pay attention to the most minute details of the practices. Notice what is a sin (pesha) versus an error (het).
Try to feel what it would mean to have this sort of practice and how it would affect you spiritually. What does it mean in 1:4 when it says, the burnt offering “will be accepted for him, to atone for him?” Are sins against neighbors also sins against God? If so, why within this system? Recall that the Hebrew for sacrifice (korban) is related to the word to cause to draw near (hakriv). What is being drawn closer? To what? The burnt offering is the “olah” – the one who rises up. What is it that is rising up?
Consider how the different purposes of the laws of sacrifice and the ways they operate: to expiate wrongful acts (Lev. 4:2) and then let them go; to expiate social or communal wrongdoing (4:13); and to ask forgiveness and to forgive trespassers (5:20 – 26).
In your study, consider also that all of us in every era will commit some form of sin. This means that every system needs to have a system of forgiveness and expiation. Compare how well our own system of public expiation on the High Holy Days satisfies this function compared with the system of sacrifices. Would the vividness of the blood and death of animals, who are dying as a result of our actions, make us want to amend our ways? Would it remind us that we too will die and force us to consider how we therefore want our lives to be remembered?
Since death is an irrevocable act, would it make us consider that our repentance should be irrevocable? Compare this to our current Jewish methods of penance and those of the Catholic confession and penance. Would the sacrifices give us a greater appreciation for the sanctity of life? Would it make us more reluctant to take life? Or would it just harden our hearts to suffering? Would it make us feel we could game the system – sin and sacrifice, sin and sacrifice?
Finally, consider the number of prophets who rail against sacrifices? Today we would be repulsed by the blood and carnage? What was the Prophets’ concern?