Vayikra 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)


With this week’s parsha we begin a new book of the Torah, Leviticus, or Vayikra, which means “he called”, from phrase that opens the book. The Book of Vayikra is also called Torat Kohanim, or the “Teachings of the Priests,” as its main topic is sacrifices, purity regulations, and other technical religious details of the priestly religion.

The first Torah portion sets introduces us to different kinds of sacrifices: voluntary offerings; offerings made to atone for accidental transgressions; and offerings made to atone to God after reparation has been done in a civil or criminal case. Offerings may be herd or flock animals, birds, or grains. The important thing to remember is that all these offerings were called korbanot, from the root “to come close;” the book of Leviticus offers us a window into a religious system that had at its core the idea of coming close to God through ritual action.


“When a person brings a mammal as an offering to God, the sacrifice must be taken from the cattle, sheep or goats. If the sacrifice is a burnt offering taken from the cattle, it must be an unblemished male. One must bring it of his own free will to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before God. ” (Leviticus 1:2-3)


A “burnt offering”, or olah, is a common type of sacrifice in the Levitical system. The body of the animal was placed whole on the altar and entirely burned, except for the hide, which may have been given to the priest. (Cf. Levitics 7:8) An olah could have been offered for either atonement or for thanksgiving, according to Harper’s Bible Dictionary.


The sacrificial system is almost impenetrably foreign to modern readers (especially vegetarian readers, such as yours truly.) We can hardly conceive of approaching God within a structure of hereditary hierarchies (such as the Israelite priesthood) and centralized sacrifices. Yet this was indeed a spiritual system for our ancestors, and given the prominence within our Torah of these laws, we can hardly dismiss their study.

R. Shoshana Gelfand, in The Woman’s Torah Commentary, (recently edited by Kolel’s own R. Elyse Goldstein), offers a wonderful interpretation of the korbanot in our parsha. For example, she notes that the root of olah is “to go up, ” and that

    as the fire consumes the offering and the smoke ascends to heaven, the desire of the offerer to ascend to heaven and unite with God is thus expressed.

She further notes that the word for “person” in this passage, adam, is the most general word for “human being,” coming from the adamah, or earth, out of which the first “earthling” (which had no gender, at first) was created. (Cf. Genesis 2) Thus, she sees the olah offering as representative of the kind of spiritual union in which one almost loses oneself into one’s beloved:

    This typology of closeness is identified with intimacy to such an extent that the two beings involved-God and the offerer- become as close as is cosmically possible. The olah represents the kind of flaming passion in which the individual is totally consumed by the relationship with the other. The mystics referred to this kind of union as devekut, a clinging of two entities . . . . the olah is a model of the Divine embrace, becoming passionately lost in one’s relationship with God, blurring the boundaries with between the self and the other.

Rabbi Gelfand points out that this kind of all-consuming experience within a relationship is not sustainable over the long run, and shows how the olah offering is balanced by other kinds of rituals within the sacrificial system. Her larger interpretation bears repeating: the sacrificial system is a model of relationship with the Divine, and our relationship with the Divine has many of the same needs and aspects and challenges as our relationships with our human loved ones. Through study and contemplation of our ancestor’s model of how to approach the Divine, we learn for ourselves wisdom for that same journey.

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