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Vayikra 5783 - Olah, the Self-Sacrifice

March 25, 2023 - 3 Nisan, 5783

…nowhere outside of Leviticus is there a clearer articulation of the reason for the Jewish people’s existence. God has entered into a relationship with the people of Israel so that they might perpetually sanctify His name. Their role in the world, and in history, is to testify to His existence, to publicize His oneness, and to advertise His greatness. This they are commanded to do by worshiping Him and keeping His laws. When they fail to do so, His name is profaned, that is, His fame is diminished and His reputation tarnished; when they live up to this charge and duty, He and His name are sanctified. (see Lev. 22:31-33) ~ Baruch J. Schwartz, from The Jewish Study Bible

Among the approximately 613 mitzvot in our Torah, a pretty large chunk deals with how specifically we are supposed to sacrifice animals and other foodstuffs to God. In every cycle of Torah reading, our gripping stories are peppered with graphic details about how to place fats and entrails on the fire, where to sprinkle blood, and in what matter to twist off birds’ heads. If this Torah is, as D’varim teaches us for those of us “all of you who are living today,” (4:4) what significance do the details of these sacrifices have for us in the Hebrew year 5783? For the next few weeks, as we dive into the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), we’ll look at different categories of sacrificial offerings and see what we can glean l’doroteinu - to bring into our present generation. 

The book of Vayikra begins with the offering that was always first to be offered up on the altar - the olah, or burnt offering. While the olah is presented in the first chapter of Vayikra as a voluntary offering, it is detailed elsewhere as an atonement offering or as part of a prescribed communal offering, such as the daily offering or offerings made on Shabbat and holidays. It can be brought from various animals - including cattle, sheep, goats, and doves - according to an individual’s financial ability. The great detail that sets the offering apart is that it is entirely consumed by flames on the altar - none of the offering is eaten by anyone other than God. When we read about giving of ourselves and expecting nothing tangible in return, we remind ourselves both of the possibility of letting God's presence enter every moment of our lives and of our responsibility to give freely and widely, regardless of what we receive in return.

Both self-sacrifice to God and self-sacrifice to community can be found through interpretation of just one word from the second verse of Vayikra:

אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יַקְרִ֥יב מִכֶּ֛ם קׇרְבָּ֖ן לַֽה׳

…when a person brings mi-kem (from or of you) an offering to Adonai…

For the 15th century Portuguese commentator Abravanel, this olah offering represents an offering of oneself. As God does not desire human sacrifice, instead, one sacrifices something of great value, like an expensive, flawless animal, to represent submitting their whole self to God. Along with spending a whole lot of money on Jewish ritual objects, and hopefully, synagogue donations, we too, can dedicate ourselves to God with every decision we make and action we take. When we decide where to apply for work, we strive not to work on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. When we see wrongdoing and would rather ignore it, we remember hokheakh tokhiakh, “you shall surely reprimand,” and we remember the call that follows: “Do not bring wrongdoing on his account” (19:17). We reprimand in a way that causes neither the wrongdoer nor us to misstep again; we reprimand in a way that respects both the wrongdoer and those wronged. 

Sometimes, submitting ourselves to God can be painful - keeping kosher takes away at least half of Shreveport’s restaurant options. Giving a worker their wages on time takes responsibility, effort, and sometimes even funds out of our own pocket. And yet, as verse three mentions that the individual brings this offering lirtzonkhem, “according to your will”, we offer of ourselves not because God is pulling the strings, but rather, as willful expressions of our gratitude for God and trust in the wisdom of God’s mitzvot. By giving of ourselves to God, even when we see no tangible return, we train ourselves to volunteer for the sake of individuals whose situations may make us uncomfortable and to donate to organizations whose recipients we will never meet.

For each of us, lirtzonkhem, “according to your will” will look different. As our abilities and interests differ, the ways in which we recognize and honor God in our every-day lives will differ. Some of us may be punctual at our daily prayers and not so interested in Torah study; some of us may have the financial means to donate but not the physical ability to carry cans to the food bank. Just as the resources and efforts we lend to those in need will not be the same, those to whom we are drawn to give will not be the same. At the end of the day, those differences are precisely why we strive to give of ourselves at every moment. God has created a world of diversity in which we each have the free will to pursue our ideals and interests; the least we can do in return is to offer an olah, a thank you and nod of acknowledgement to God at every breath we take.

Thu, April 18 2024 10 Nisan 5784