Dr. Joan Chunkapura
March 12, 2019
This week’s Torah portion covers the first five chapters of the Book of Leviticus. It is devoted to matters completely remote from our present-day life, giving directions for sacrifice and rules of ritual defilement and purification. The philosopher Philo (who lived in Alexandria at the beginning of the Christian era) found all sorts of spiritual meanings in the sacrificial cult: by explaining the laws symbolically and allegorically, he believed he had penetrated to their deepest and truest intent. According to the Philo, the purpose is for the general reader to understand the concepts of religion and morality. In the Book of Leviticus we are commanded, “Love your neighbour as yourself” and “Proclaim liberty throughout the land,” dramatic developments in the concepts of highest level of ethical and spiritual aspiration. Additionally, all these rituals are ways of connecting with God. There are five key types of sacrifice: the burnt offering (‘olah), the grain offering (minhah), the sacred gift of greeting (zevah ha-shelamim), the sin/reparation offering (hatta’t) and the guilt offering (’asham). These offerings served a multiplicity of functions depending on the type and occasion, including expiation of sins, completion of purification rites, thanksgiving, entreaty, vow fulfillment or spontaneous free-will gifts.
What was the purpose of sacrifices? In the haftarah, (1 Sam 15:2-34), the prophet challenges an oversimplified concept of sacrifices: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.” Sacrifice is part of reconciling with God and building relationship with people and God. In the study of Greek religion by Walter Burkert, sacrifice is a means of dealing with guilt over the taking of life. In another approach, according to De Vaux (1965), through ‘gift’ the worshipper brings something of value to the deity. It could be for thanksgiving or to establish relationship and communion.
With the destruction of the Second Temple, animal sacrifices ceased and prayer and fasting became the contemporary equivalent of a sacrifice. Each generation needs to find ways to make God present in any new situation. Indeed, the prophet, Micah speaks not of animal sacrifices but of the primacy of justice and love, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?’(Mic.6:6)
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