Parshas Vayikra (5774)
This week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayikra, kicks off the Third Book of the Five Books of Moses – The Book of Leviticus - and deals primarily with the Korbanos, or ritual sacrifices, that the Jewish people were commanded to offer to G-d in the Sanctuary. Now the idea of animal sacrifices might seem repugnant to us progressive moderns of today, and perhaps rightly so.
As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes in his Handbook of Jewish Thought (Volume II): The sacrificial system would be brutal and barbaric unless administered in an atmosphere filled with holiness and dedication to G-d, where its full spiritual and mystical nature is thoroughly appreciated. Therefore, only a nation of the highest moral and spiritual caliber could be worthy of offering sacrifices to G-d. When the Jewish people no longer maintained this high standard, the sacrificial system was abolished by G-d through the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 3830 (70 CE).
And, as is reflected in our daily prayers where we ask of G-d: “V’hasheiv es ha’avodah lid’vir beisechah …. Please, G-d, restore the Service to Your Holy Temple” - we long for a time when the Third Temple will be rebuilt, and we will once again return to the sacrificial system – only then we will be on a level where we will be able to understand and appreciate it.
Yet though it is true that we presently have no Holy Temple and no ritual sacrifices to speak of, it is nonetheless worth our time to explore the laws and concepts involved in the sacrificial system, as they can help us gain greater insight into their modern-day replacement – the Daily Prayers.
You see, we are taught in the Talmud in Berachos 6b that Tefillah (prayer) is considered the service of G-d similar to the sacrifices of the Holy Temple. Just as the sacrifices served to help man come to the realization of his true essence and to return to himself and to G-d, so, too, does prayer connect man with his inner self, drawing him closer to the true needs and yearnings of his own soul and to G-d.
It is for this reason that, when it is impossible to bring sacrifices, as is the case today when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem has not yet been rebuilt, prayer can be offered in their stead, as the prophet exclaimed, “We will offer the words of our lips instead of claves” (Hosea 14:3). Thus, formal prayers were ordained by the Men of the Great Assembly in place of the regular daily sacrifices performed in the Temple in Jerusalem – which themselves were accompanied by prayer and song. Moreover, the prayer of a sincere heart is far better than any sacrifice, as King David wrote, “I will praise the name of G-d with a song, I will exalt Him with thanksgiving, and it shall please G-d more than the offering of a bullock” (Psalms 69:31-32).
Let’s take a closer look at one of the laws mentioned in this week’s Torah portion regarding ritual sacrifices - a law that tells us a lot about how we are to serve G-d when we bring our Korbanos to Him, or when we stand before Him in prayer in the synagogue.
In Leviticus 2:11, the Torah commands us: “You shall not cause to go up in smoke from any leavening or fruit-honey as a fire-offering to G-d”. In other words, there is a Biblical prohibition against offering either leaven (se’or) or fruit-honey (devash) as a Korban to G-d.
The commentaries explain the symbolism of this prohibition as follows: Since the essence of the ritual sacrifices, as we mentioned earlier, is to come to a realization of who we are and what our souls really want in this world, we should refrain from offering any se’or, or leavening agent, whose entire purpose is to inflate the dough with air pockets, distorting the dough’s true essence and giving it a façade of being more than it truly is. Nor should we offer any devash, or sweet honey, representing an obsession with the pursuit of physical pleasures that can only serve to distract us from focusing on our true needs.
Since prayer today replaces the sacrifices of Temple times, it follows that our prayer experience in the synagogue should also be leaven and honey-free. [We’ve all heard of smoke-free and nut-free buildings …. but leaven and honey-free?!] This means that there should be no distractions in the synagogue that would hinder our ability to focus on our prayers and on all those spiritual things that we now realize that we truly want in this world.
The problem today is that we have brought a little too much leaven and honey into the synagogue. Whereas once upon a time it was understood by even the most ignorant Jew that the focal point of the entire prayer service was the Shemoneh Esrei/Silent Prayer, when a Jew places the Tallis (prayer shawl) over his head and spends some quality time talking with G-d and focusing on what his neshamah really needs and yearns for – today, much of the focus of our prayers is on the stuff that is done outwardly and in public, like the singing at the Reading of the Torah and at the end of the services or the public chanting of the Haftarah. And anything done publicly is in danger of having some “leaven” in it – we might be focusing on what the people around us are thinking about us as we stand up there at the bimah, which may cause us to present a façade of being something different than what we truly are. And that’s the exact opposite of what prayer was meant to be.
And whereas in the old days one could enter a synagogue and feel like he was now removed from all the “honey” and materialism of the world outside, affording him the chance to focus on things spiritual – today, our shuls are flowing with honey, and the distractions caused by all the materialism and obsession with fashion and physicality that is so prevalent even in the Sanctuary, make it nearly impossible to pray in the way that could make it effective.
Now I am not advocating that we ban public chanting in the synagogue, G-d forbid, or that everyone come to the synagogue dressed in clothing purchased at Dollarama!
But what is important for all of us to realize is that prayer today, just like its ancient predecessor, the sacrificial system, can only work when it is done in the right atmosphere and with the proper focus. And if we can remember that the next time we enter the synagogue to pray to G-d, and we can try to remove ourselves for a few minutes from whatever else is going on outside in order to focus on who we are and what we really want in life, then we will have strengthened our connection to our true selves, and, ultimately, to our Father in Heaven.